BET contributor George Johnson had the opportunity to speak with Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg on Thursday June 6. "Mayor Pete," as he is called by the media, is the first openly gay man to officially run for President of the United States and has been on the campaign trail in Atlanta speaking with Black voters on an array of issues. Below he tells BET his plans for police accountability, addresses his queer white privilege and explains why he's not just another Democrat taking the Black Vote for granted.
The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
George Johnson: Today you discussed the “need” for policing, a system that we know disproportionately affects Black and brown people adversely. You’ve called for bridging the gap of mistrust from police, which has been a talking point for Democrats some time, with no real change.
How do you propose that you will create this change not just in community, but on a systemic level?
Pete Buttigieg: The systemic solution I feel ties back to the community in a way. So, for example, some of the measures we have taken in South Bend—we are on this journey and we are not there yet, but we have been able to make a lot of progress. One thing is transparency around “use of force,” making sure everybody can see the same kind of read-outs that come to the administration on what’s happening, how often it’s happening, what incidents are happening.
Another has to do with training. Civil rights training, implicit bias training and making sure that officers understand what is required of them as public servants who serve everybody with equity. Another is recruiting and making sure we have a diverse set of people in the department itself as we know it’s one of the most powerful things we can do to fight racism and bias—in any workforce but certainly in a police department.
Oversight. So that means making sure that the civilian board that I appoint which has five members that make all the decisions in police discipline had an AA majority because we knew that was an important part of oversight and trust. One of the things that mattered a lot in the last administration was that as a mayor I had an ally in the White House. So, Obama’s 21st century taskforce on policing, it was somewhere I could send our police chief when we realized implementing body cameras could do a lot of good for accountability and integrity in the police department. They had a lot of guidance on how to do that right.
Now we get no support from the DOJ in trying to make sure that policing is fairer and more equitable. In fact, the only time I’ve heard from the Trump DOJ on the subject of policing was when they pressured me to sign a letter that we would help them with immigration enforcement or they would take away some of our grant money, which of course I didn’t do.
Part of how I think we get some of the work done on a systemic level is through federal support of communities seeking to do the right thing and federal accountability for communities that don’t which is where the civil rights division of the DOJ is important but I think right now it has been weakened in terms of its attention to communities where policing is a huge problem from an equity perspective.
Policing really represents the beginning of somebody’s encounter with a system that has a lot of systemic racism, not just historically but if you just look at things like sentencing disparities, we know these biases are alive and well and happening right now. If we get that right, even things that aren’t police issues like mandatory minimums or walking away from incarcerations of drug possessions it does filter back into policing.
A quick add on to that, have you ever heard of the term “prison abolition” in speaking with members of the Black community? The abolishing of prisons [altogether]. Is that something you would consider researching, as part of the Black community is shifting its thoughts [past reform] to a different approach.
Pete Buttigieg: It’s not something I’m very educated on, but I will be sure to learn more about it.
As a white gay man, you are currently in a position currently that many Black queer people wouldn’t be able to obtain due to the intersection of race and sexuality. With LGBTQ issues reaching a boiling point in this country, how do you propose protections not only for LGBTQ Americans, but specifically Black queer people who face issues of violence from homophobia as well as racism?
Pete Buttigieg: Well what we know is Black queer people are so vulnerable in so many more ways. You look at violence against trans women of color, and higher incidences of victimization of Black gay men, and across the spectrum and how that intersects with incarceration too. And we know there is greater victimization and vulnerability when you have that kind of intersectionality.
The way I relate to this personally is that my piece of the LGBTQ community is a very specific and narrow piece, but it forms some basis for empathy for a personal stake in other experiences. Being a gay man who is white gives me very little personal understanding of being a trans woman of color. But it does give me a version of understanding of what it is like to be on the wrong side of an exclusion. I think I can use and draw on that part of my experience to motivate my work with people who have very different experiences.
The same way that I think that as a mayoral elected official, it is more important that I be standing with women whose reproductive rights are in danger. And as a US citizen it is that much more important to be there to explain why we need to support dreamers and create a pathway to citizenship for them.
So, I think when you are in touch with these different patterns of privilege the best thing you can do is name and acknowledge them. But also think how you can use that as ground to stand on to make yourself useful to people that are on the wrong side of these patterns of exclusion that are different than your own, because you know that in other ways people have stood up for you.
You’ve had the opportunity to not only work with Black Americans in your hometown, but now across the country—showing how non-monolithic Black people are in issues affecting them, even if monolithic in how they vote primarily Democratic. What have you learned about our community you didn’t know, and how are you ensuring that Black voters aren’t being tokenized as they are every four years? For example, “the hot sauce in the bag” and other tropes used to appeal to people in our community.
Pete Buttigieg: Even though I think this President is as hostile to Black America as any we have seen in modern times, there was some potency to his line when he said, “what do you have to lose?” I think there is this sense of expectation of Black and brown voters that we just kind of count of them and assume they will support Democrat.
What I’ve found in my travels is a mix on one hand a broad-based frustration that takes different shapes in different places. Big generational differences and big regional differences in our Black voters when approaching any number of issues. I’m also seeing a lot more by the way of solutions then sometimes gets talked about in political conversations in the media.
You see what’s going on with entrepreneurship in a lot of communities. You see one of the best opportunities you have to drive more employment for Black Americans is in Black owned businesses and people are stepping up. I think we can do more to tear down barriers that these new businesses face. But you see people with a real solution mentality there.
Another thing you don’t hear about enough is the way that there are a lot of intersections between people of faith in the Black community. And people are seeing greater LGBTQ inclusion. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Black queer faith leaders and found there is a much more rich and diverse dialogue going on in activist communities of faith. Especially when you think about how the Black church has been an original template for what I would call the religious left on civil rights but still coming to terms with LGBTQ inclusion.
So, some of these conversations and these cross currents that are going on in the community are not always well understood by people riding on the political shores of these communities every time we go to a new geography for the campaign. Of course I learn from the questions asked at the town halls and the media but I learn a lot from the off the record conversations we have a little more quietly from activists from different generations and learn about the overlaps between whether its LGBT, faith leadership, or labor, or millennial activism as compared to the activism from the civil rights generation. The biggest them I’m learning is there is so much diversity within these movements.
To be honest it is interesting for many of us to see someone who is white with the intersection of being gay rise so meteorically so fast in a Presidential race. Although you are a part of an oppressed group (LGBTQ), you still have privilege because of your whiteness so is there anything that you wanted to discuss to make folks feel comfortable that you understand both sides of your oppression and privilege?
Pete Buttigieg: The best thing I can say to that is I learned the lesson that you can only learn the hard way as someone who is a white mayor serving a very diverse community that has been through a lot of pain as a consequence of patterns of racial exclusion in everything from economics, to housing, to health to policing and criminal justice. Not that we have gotten everything perfectly, but that I’ve been educated not just by discussing these issues in meetings or debating them in committees but really by having to come up with solutions and try to do the things we do in the city better based on what members of our community tell us we need.
Part of what has helped us to catch on is the idea of somebody who is locally rooted without the same kind of Washington DC track record that is traditional for a presidential candidate, but at the same token a different kind of groundedness. Through that I’ve really wrestled with these issues of how to equitably serve a diverse community and how to specifically address the things that Black Americans are up against from my own diverse community and draw those lessons to make myself useful to people at a national level.
I think that it is a hard sell for any relatively new figure who is also not from a community of color to earn the trust of Black voters for simple reasons that democratic and republican administrations have let people down in so many ways for so long. But I’m hoping that the more opportunities I get to have more authentic encounters where we take on board the urgent views and priorities of voters we meet and have a chance to convey the elements of an agenda that I think will serve Black Americans well in the context of these values like freedom, security, and democracy that we talk about everywhere but have special residence for Black voters.
I hope this will be a compelling message, but we need every opportunity to share that message and develop that message and partnership with voters who know a lot about different patterns of exclusions over time.
George M. Johnson has joined BET Digital as guest editor for Pride Month. Look out for his weekly column and curation of editorials from queer Black writers this June. George is a writer, activist and columnist for Afropunk. His debut YA memoir, “All Boys Aren't Blue,” is set to be released April 28, 2020.
(Photo: Dustin Chambers/Getty Images)