NEW ORLEANS — They lined up in their Sunday finest, thousands of black women clamoring for every last seat inside a cavernous convention hall against the booming soundtrack of old church hymns.
It was Gospel Sunday at the Essence Festival, one of the nation’s largest annual gatherings of African American women, and on the bill was an empowerment talk with Tyler Perry, the enormously popular, do-it-all black entertainer best known for his “Medea” films.
But first, sandwiched in between all-black gospel choir and Perry, was Pete Buttigieg. The mayor of South Bend, Ind., took the stage, the last of seven Democratic presidential hopefuls here to woo black women, a crucial voting bloc in 2020.
Arriving to a smattering of polite applause from the thousands of women in the room, Buttigieg, whose campaign has struggled with black voters, immediately began trying to win over the audience. “I stand here knowing that black women aren’t just the backbone of the Democratic Party, you are the bone and sinew that make our democracy whole,” Buttigieg declared. “When black women mobilize, outcomes change. And we need some different outcomes at a time like this.”
Buttigeig’s appearance came a day after six other candidates spoke at the festival, each appealing to black women in different ways.
Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pitched policy proposals aimed at closing the racial wealth gap. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio argued for universal health care. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) championed his support for a new voting rights act. And Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) invoked the road trip he’d taken to the festival through impoverished areas of rural Mississippi to pitch his plan to improve the nation’s education system.
But it was the candidate who didn’t show up who seemed to influence much of the conversation here. On Saturday, former vice president Joe Biden was in South Carolina, where he apologized for warmly reminiscing about his past work with segregationist senators.
Biden has been on the defensive since last month. At the primary debate, Harris told Biden that his past opposition to federally mandated busing was personally “hurtful,” because she had been part of a voluntary busing program as a child in Berkeley, Calif. On Saturday, Biden invoked his ties to Barack Obama to defend his record on issues of race, accusing critics of overlooking his years serving with the nation’s first black president.
“I was vetted by him and selected by him. I will take his judgment of my record, my character, and my ability to handle the job over anyone else’s,” Biden said.
At the Essence Festival, some attendees suggested that Biden’s relationship with Obama was not enough to excuse his recent missteps and, in fact, made them more glaring. “The fact that he’s still tone-deaf in 2019, and he served with a black man for eight years . . . it’s offensive,” said Coretta Graham, a former prosecutor from Corpus Christi, Tex., who chairs the local Democratic Party there. “If you’ve been with someone that long, you ought to know. . . . To me, that means you weren’t paying attention.”
Although Harris did not mention Biden during her appearance, she invoked her personal history as “a daughter of the civil rights movement” who understands and can continue the fight for racial justice.
Listing female heroes in the black movement, Harris said: “That’s why Sojourner spoke. It’s why Mae flew. It’s why Rosa and Claudette sat. It’s why Maya wrote. It’s why Fannie organized. It’s why Shirley ran. And why I stand here as a candidate for president of the United States.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama declined to comment on Biden when she appeared at the festival Saturday with “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King. When King asked whether she had any comment on the Harris-Biden “dust-up,” Obama said: “I do not. I’ve been doing this rodeo far too long.”
The former first lady reiterated that she and her husband plan to remain neutral in the Democratic primary contest, and she reminded the audience that it’s still “very early.”
“It’s like trying to figure out who is going to win the World Series on the first seven games,” she said. “That’s where we are right now. It is so early, and things will change.”
While Harris and Warren attracted the most enthusiastic crowds, Buttigieg benefited from being Perry’s opening act, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of several thousand people, not including hundreds more who lined up at the open doors seeking to get in. Each candidate got about 20 to 25 minutes to address the crowd and then participate in a question-and-answer session with moderators, Buttigieg was onstage just over 30 minutes, long enough that a DJ began to play music to remind his questioners, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, that time was up.
Buttigieg, whose city was sent into turmoil last month after a white police officer fatally shot a black man, was asked why Democrats haven’t made more progress on dealing with the issue of race.
“I think it’s because we’ve been under the spell of the idea of color blindness, which may have felt very progressive relative to what came before,” Buttigieg said. “We’ve been under the spell of this idea that if you have a racist policy, and you get rid of it and replace it with a new policy, everything else will kind of take care of itself. And it just doesn’t work that way.”
Citing the author James Baldwin, he added, “Until white America comes to terms with itself, there will never be resolution to the treatment of black people in this country.”
The crowd erupted into applause.