The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A stock image was used to promote Pete Buttigieg’s plan for black America. The photo was taken in Kenya.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg delivers a Veterans Day address during a campaign event in Rochester, N.H., in November. (Elise Amendola/AP)

The photo of a black woman smiling at a young black boy had been splashed for weeks across a web page detailing South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s plan to combat racial inequality, which he billed as a “comprehensive investment in the empowerment of black America.”

But when the woman in the photo learned her likeness was displayed on the Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign website, she was confused, the Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported Sunday. The woman isn’t African American and she’s never heard of the Douglass Plan — she is from Kenya, where the picture was originally taken.

“[W]hat’s the meaning of the message accompanied by the photo?” the woman asked Grim. “Have no idea of what’s happening...”

The photo mix-up is just the latest controversy to erupt around the Douglass Plan since it was rolled out in July as part of Buttigieg’s effort to make inroads with black voters. While recent polling has shown Buttigieg surging toward the front of the crowded Democratic presidential field in Iowa, the candidate has struggled to draw support from African Americans.

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Some critics pointed to the photo as further proof of that disconnect.

“This is not ok or necessary,” tweeted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who is a Somali-born refugee.

By late Sunday, Buttigieg’s campaign confirmed to The Washington Post that the photo of the Kenyan woman was no longer on the page promoting the Douglass Plan, noting that it had been taken down in September during an update. A contracting firm had chosen the stock image while building the site without knowing that it was taken in Africa, according to the campaign.

The photo was one of several featuring people of color that ran on the page touting the Douglass Plan. Named after abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass, the plan aims to “dismantle racist structures and systems” in the United States by proposing changes to the country’s health, education and criminal justice systems, The Post reported in July.

To understand how Pete Buttigieg became a presidential contender, you have to start in South Bend, Ind. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Last month, the campaign announced that more than 400 people in South Carolina, where the latest Monmouth Poll had Buttigieg at 1 percent among black voters, endorsed the plan. The news was promoted in an Oct. 24 op-ed signed by the plan’s supporters and three black South Carolina Democrats: Columbia City Council member Tameika Isaac Devine, state Rep. Ivory Thigpen, and the state party’s Black Caucus chair, Johnnie Cordero.

“There is one presidential candidate who has proven to have intentional policies designed to make a difference in the Black experience, and that’s Pete Buttigieg,” according to the op-ed, which ran in HBCU Times, a publication dedicated to news about historically black colleges and universities. “We are over 400 South Carolinians, including business owners, pastors, community leaders, and students. Together, we endorse his Douglass Plan for Black America, the most comprehensive roadmap for tackling systemic racism offered by a 2020 presidential candidate.”

But questions soon emerged about the nature of support Buttigieg had found for the plan. The Washington Post reported on Nov. 11 that “Buttigieg persuaded hundreds of prominent black South Carolinians to sign onto the plan even if they are not supporting his candidacy.”

“His campaign then trumpeted these signatures in a way that forced figures such as Devine, for one, to clarify that she was not endorsing Buttigieg,” The Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Amy B Wang wrote.

On Friday, Devine told the Intercept that the campaign had been “intentionally vague” about the way it presented her endorsement, which led some to believe she was backing Buttigieg as a candidate and not just the Douglass Plan. The council member reiterated her support for the plan in a tweet over the weekend.

Cordero and Thigpen, however, told the Intercept they did not expect their names to appear on the op-ed.

“I never endorsed that plan,” Cordero said. “I don’t know how my name got on there.”

Thigpen, who has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president, said the way Buttigieg’s campaign rolled out its October announcement “was not an accurate representation of where I stand.”

Cordero’s name was taken off the op-ed before the Intercept’s story published, according to Buttigieg’s campaign. Thigpen remains as one of the named supporters.

People who expressed interest in backing the plan had the option to opt out of having their names attached to the op-ed if they responded in time to an email sent by the campaign, the Intercept reported. After reviewing the names, the publication found that at least 42 percent of the list was made up of white voters.

In a statement to The Post on Sunday, a spokesman for the campaign said, “We’ve been clear that not every supporter of the plan is Black, and have never claimed otherwise in any public communication.” The statement also pushed back against allegations that the campaign “gave the impression publicly that these people were endorsing Pete.”

“We asked a number of Black South Carolinians, as well as South Carolinians from many backgrounds, to support the Douglass Plan, and we are proud and grateful that hundreds agreed to do so,” the statement said, noting that people were given multiple chances to review the op-ed and those who asked had their names taken off.

This weekend, conversation shifted to the photo, which Grim pointed out Friday had been taken in Kenya. In a Sunday tweet, he explained the Kenyan woman reached out to him “very confused” about why her picture was suddenly linked to an American presidential candidate. Grim added that the woman did agree to be photographed, but “didn’t intend to pose for a stock photo.”

By early Monday, Grim’s tweet had garnered hundreds of responses.

One person accused Buttigieg’s campaign of “pure laziness.”

“Sounds like a man with his finger on the pulse of the black community,” another tweeted.