Pete Buttigieg on the campaign trail in North Carolina. Photo: Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images
The topic of racism and education in America seems to have confounded Pete Buttigieg’s campaign over the past week. Shortly before Thanksgiving, The Root writer Michael Harriot called the South Bend, Indiana, mayor a “lying motherfucker” based on comments he made in 2011 about educational achievement gaps between black and white children in his city. “There are a lot of kids — especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods, who literally just haven’t seen [education] work,” said the Democratic presidential candidate. “There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education.” Harriot objected: Not only was Buttigieg wrong about the gap’s origins, the writer argued, he was wrong by choice, indulging a false narrative about “black lethargy” and “esoteric lack of support” from black communities despite knowing better.
Harriot’s article prompted a viral news cycle and, later the same day, a conciliatory phone call from Buttigieg himself. But even after the follow-up, it remained hard to discern whether the mayor was actually claiming that black communities don’t support their children, or remarking on the American education system’s failure to afford their kids the same opportunities as white kids. His comments, I think, could fairly be read either way, but that kind of murkiness has become a theme: With each new comment he makes about racism and education in South Bend comes renewed confusion regarding what he actually believes about either one.
A philosophical question that’s hangs over much of Buttigieg’s campaign: Why choose between ignorance of the issue and cynicism over how it plays when you can have both? It’s less apparent by the day whether the mayor’s muddled answers stem primarily from having had few substantive conversations with black people in his city, or from the same opportunism that underlies his opposition to tuition-free college and his rightward turn against Medicare for All. Sunday provided even more fuel for debate: During a campaign stop in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Buttigieg admitted to Reverend William Barber that he’d underestimated how badly segregated schools still were in South Bend. “I have to confess that I was slow to realize — I worked for years under the illusion that our schools in my city were integrated,” Buttigieg said. “Because they had to be, because of a court order.”
The court order to which the mayor referred is almost certainly the consent decree that the South Bend Community School Corporation entered with the Justice Department in 1981. Under the decree, the corporation’s board — which governs the city’s schools and is comprised of publicly elected members — tacitly recognized its segregation problem, committed to reversing it, and was required to enroll a share of black students in each school that fell within 15 percentage points of their share of the district population. The corporation’s struggles to fulfill this commitment have been well documented: As of 2018, it was still under the decree, and at least one of its high schools and five primary schools were out of compliance. For Buttigieg, knowing that segregation was still a problem wasn’t just a matter of easily-ascertainable testimony provided in local newspapers and by any black parent whose child attended a local school. It was the subject of one of the city’s longest-running civil-rights mandates, and thus an odd thing for its mayor to be unaware of, even if the schools weren’t under his immediate purview.
This is besides the striking naiveté required to presume that desegregation was successful simply because a court ordered it. Defying court orders to integrate schools is practically a national pastime, having fueled hostilities and violent conflict in cities from New Orleans to St. Louis to Boston. Even where protests and lawsuits brought by outraged white residents failed to halt efforts like mandatory busing in the short term, their subsequent exodus from cities to suburbs — known colloquially as “white flight” — did not. Nor has South Bend been immune to the consequences: The city lost nearly 10,000 white residents between 2010 and 2017 despite experiencing overall population growth during the same period.
All of this makes Buttigieg’s followup claim that South Bend’s schools actually were desegregated within the district’s boundaries — and that it was the surrounding county that remained divided — even more confounding. “[What] I slowly realized is that, while that was true [that schools had been integrated] within the limits of the South Bend community school district, as they were drawn, if you looked at the county, almost all of the diversity of our youths was in a single school district,” he told Barber in North Carolina. This seems to directly contradict the reality that several schools within the district’s bounds — including Hamilton Traditional, Coquillard Elementary, and Washington High — remain out of compliance with the consent decree to this day. This is an improvement over previous years, when more schools were out of compliance. But it remains apparent that desegregation has been an active and unrealized goal in South Bend throughout Buttigieg’s mayorship.
It’s far from unique that a man of Buttigieg’s social and educational pedigree should be only marginally concerned with what his black neighbors endure, to the point that even as mayor of a segregated city with schools to match he could govern for years without recognizing it. But as he spins his proclaimed ignorance into a self-deprecating campaign-trail story about personal growth, he’s mystified the issue further by locating the problem far afield — in segregation patterns in the surrounding county; in desegregation processes he didn’t realize were ongoing, despite their decades of continuous implementation. It’s hard to avoid concluding that Buttigieg’s “illusion” about desegregation is the same willful sort indulged by white people the nation over. It’s the sort that lets him remark off-handedly that achievement gaps stem from a lack of evidence that education pays dividends for black children, then admit years later to knowing little about the actual problem until long after being entrusted with fixing it.