Pete Buttigieg Is Not a Lying MF. He’s White America
Looking the other way won’t change what’s right in front of you.
Michael Harriot is a talented MF. The black writer for The Root went viral last week with a colorful headline that challenged a high-profile politician’s relationship with the truth — “Pete Buttigieg Is a Lying MF” — and the powerful essay that followed was loaded with explosive truth bombs. Boom!
It also earned Harriot a personal phone call from Buttigieg, the rising candidate for the Democratic Party nomination in the 2020 presidential election. The previous week, I received one from the A-list manager of an A-list superstar over an article I wrote for a major entertainment website.
Judging from “Pete Buttigieg Called Me. Here’s What Happened,” Harriot handled his phone call better than I did mine. Clearly he doesn’t have any trouble with the truth … at least not the truth as he sees it.
But the way I see it, Pete Buttigieg is not a lying MF. I think he actually believed what he said about education and minorities in 2011 when he was running for mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
As the gay son of black immigrants from St. Martin and Antigua, someone who grew up poor and worked my way up the proverbial ladder to achieve the American dream in New York City, I also believe what Buttigieg said was true and still is. A lot of kids in “the lower-income minority neighborhoods” don’t pursue that aforementioned American dream via education because they’ve never personally seen a good education do anything for people who look like them.
It’s important to acknowledge that Buttigieg didn’t make a blanket generalization — “a lot of kids” were actually his words — or even specify any single minority group. But I think his observation certainly would apply to some blacks, maybe even “a lot of” blacks.
If they saw more people who look like them getting an education and using it to achieve money goals, they might recognize more value in it. It doesn’t help that the most visible successful black people achieve the American dream (i.e., money), not through academia, but through sports and the performing arts. If you’re a famous black American man with money (and a Kardashian on your arm), you’re more likely to have climbed the bling ladder with a ball or beats.
So yeah, Buttigieg was right. Kind of. But like so many well-meaning whites before him, he missed the point by oversimplifying it. In Buttigieg’s case, his diagnosis was entirely about symptoms. It failed to pinpoint the true cause.
He made it so easy to read between his lines and presume he was insinuating that lack of education among minorities in the lower income neighborhoods is mostly about parenting. Was he suggesting that those minority kids in the lower-income neighborhoods are damned to lives of stupidity or violence or crime simply because without the incentive of successful, educated role models, they won’t bother to pick up a book?
Well, maybe … sometimes. But there are a lot of other reasons why a black kid might pick up a book — or not. It isn’t just about having positive or negative role models. Many white kids with positive role models can’t be bothered to finish school.
I can’t speak for any other black person, but I went to school, made good grades, put myself through college, and graduated four years later with a journalism degree and big ambitions not because I had seen that work for any of the adults in my life. I did it because I was genuinely interested in learning and excelling at what I wanted to be, which was a journalist.
I’m certain many other minorities who grew up in the lower-income neighborhoods were just like me. What pushed me forward were goals and a voracious appetite for knowledge. Even without black college-educated role models to show me the way, I understood the importance of a good education. I also understood that I probably would have to work twice as hard as my white classmates because of the color of my skin.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the truth that Buttigieg so carefully avoided facing in 2011. It’s the truth many well-meaning whites avoid today. Why does education not work for young minorities in the lower-income neighborhoods and the people they look up to? It’s not necessarily because they’re lazy or because they don’t pursue one.
For blacks, we often don’t have the luxury of inherited wealth to ensure our continued education after high school. And even when we work hard to put ourselves through college like I did, the system doesn’t necessarily work for us the way it works for the privileged majority.
(Dear white people: Please don’t point out that many white graduates have trouble finding jobs. Their obstacle is economics, not economics and race. And hold those affirmative-action arguments. Minority quotas give qualified and non-qualified blacks one or two token positions out of dozens, or hundreds. Corporate America remains a white man’s world.)
Yes, the American dream is about drive and ambition, and if you’re willing to take the academic route to achieve it, it’s about willingness to study hard and slog through a lot of boring shit. But even if you have drive and ambition and willingness to slog through a lot of boring shit, an American dream that was conceived by white men for white men still is less likely to come true for people of color.
What Buttigieg failed to do in his analysis was acknowledge the elephant in the room: racism. White America has been living with it, harboring it for centuries, but so many still refuse to look it in the eye — or they’re too terrified to do so. Ignorance is bliss.
But it’s not an option when you’re black. It’s in our faces practically 24/7. Whites can dismiss us as “victims,” “crybabies,” and all the pejorative cut-downs in their arsenals of passive-aggressive hate, but that doesn’t change the facts of American life: This country, the land of the free and the home of the brave, was built on racism, and whether white people want to admit it or not, it persists and it continues to keep blacks and other minorities down.
So no, I don’t think Buttigieg is a lying MF. I suspect he, like so many in white America, believe the whitewashed version of reality that they try to sell. If they’re guilty of anything it’s lethargy, slumbering in a cocoon of ignorant bliss because it’s more comfortable there. Truly open and honest discussion is too scary. The mirror it shines on them might be too bright.
Focusing on symptoms without thinking about the cause doesn’t make them liars. They’re just sidestepping the truth about our American nightmare because their American dream is easier to sleep through. If they dared to wake up and smell the coffee, though, they might be blown away by the stench.