In his essay, author Michael Harriot dispensed with the acronyms and offered a withering, profanity-laced takedown of comments that the rising Democratic presidential candidate made in 2011, during Buttigieg’s first race for mayor of South Bend, Ind.
In a roundtable he did back then on a local television station, Buttigieg suggested that what was holding back black kids was a lack of role models. “There are a lot of kids — especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods, who literally just haven’t seen it work,” he said. “There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education.”
Harriot recalled his own background — how as a child he had to lay a 10-foot-long wooden plank across a ditch to get from his impoverished neighborhood to the affluent one where his town’s only high school was located.
“I never said f--- it. But if I did, it wouldn’t have been because of a lack of role models. If I had chosen to keep my mama’s lights on instead of making that daily trek, my decision wouldn’t have been based on a tropological dearth of ‘motivation’ or communal ambivalence,” Harriot wrote.
Harriot succeeded, at least in part, because he was luckier than a lot of the kids he knew. He outran history’s racist legacy and overcame the economic barriers that have held back so many other bright and talented African Americans, even those who come from supportive families and who are blessed with ample role models.
What Buttigieg failed to understand, Harriot contended, was that he too had been lucky, starting with the fact that he was born white. The future presidential candidate grew up in the environs of the University of Notre Dame, where his parents were academics and where he attended a fine private school that helped launch him to Harvard University and then to study at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
The language Harriot used was blunt and vulgar — purposefully so, he told me in an interview: “I don’t think you can have an honest conversation about race without making people uncomfortable.”
His column quickly went viral, and the way things work in politics these days, all of this might have ended there, in a conflagration on Twitter. Buttigieg might have gone into a defensive crouch or offered the classic dodge that his comments had been taken out of context. It all might have become yet another instance of “cancel culture,” as virulent public shaming is now known.
But instead, something remarkable happened: Buttigieg picked up the phone and called Harriot. “I don’t think I’ve ever been called a ‘lying motherf-----’ before,” the South Bend mayor told the columnist, by way of opening what turned into a frank conversation.
Harriot told Buttigieg that in watching that old video, he became infuriated hearing Buttigieg and three other white men discuss “what was broken in the black community without acknowledging who broke it and who refuses to fix it.”
As Buttigieg later explained, he thought Harriot had unfairly characterized him, but “I do understand the concern. What I said in that comment before I became mayor does not reflect the totality of my understanding then, and certainly now, about the obstacles that students of color face in our system today.”
He also realized that his earlier remarks validated “a narrative that sometimes blames the victim for the consequences of systemic racism.”
Sure, it was smart politics for Buttigieg to have made the call. Right now, it appears that the biggest thing holding him back as the breakout star of this political season is his inability to expand his appeal to minority voters.
But sometimes, a shrewd move can be the right move, too.
Harriot told me that his message was meant not just for Buttigieg but for a host of politicians who seem to believe that connecting with black voters begins and ends with showing up in barber shops and church pulpits when it’s election season.
“There is no way for me to know what any politician will do to solve the problems,” Harriot said. But he gave Buttigieg credit for knowing that he needed to start by listening and by trying to understand precisely what those problems are.
As a child, Harriot had to navigate a wooden plank to reach the future that awaited if he was lucky enough to get to the other side of a ditch. But as unpromising as it must have seemed at the time, that piece of board taught him a lesson that all of us could use: Sometimes, even a precarious bridge can do the job.