The first thing you should know about me is that I absolutely hate talking on the phone.
My friends, family and co-workers all know this about me. It’s not the talking that bothers me, it’s the anticipation angst from waiting for a phone call. Therapy and self-reflection have informed me that my subconscious anxiety is fueled by the fact that I’ve received news of personal and family tragedies via telephone.
Also, talking bothers me.
The second thing you should know about me is that I will fight.
I don’t enjoy fighting. I don’t even fight very well. In fact, if I combined my amateur fist-fighting record, my jiu-jitsu sparring, all of my slap-boxing exhibitions, and the time Zevalon Jackson slapped me for talking smack while running a Boston on her in spades, my winning percentage is well below .500. But I believe fisticuffs are a legitimate way to settle disputes while arguments are usually pointless exercises to get one party to proclaim why the other party is wrong. I’d rather you beat me up.
So when I received a text message from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign about an article I wrote, I genuinely hoped that he was going to send four or five of his thugs over to rough me up and that would be it. (And if you don’t believe there are Pete Buttigieg supporters out there willing to throw hands, then you probably aren’t on Twitter. I think they should call themselves the “Pete Patrol.” Or the “Buttigang.”)
I figured one of his surrogates would argue with me for a few minutes and I could continue my day trying to be a thorn in the side of white supremacy (The third thing you should know is that I actually keep a small photo of the mouse from Pinky and the Brain beside my bed that says: “What are you going to do today, Michael?” The answer is always the same: “Fuck with white people.”)
Luckily, as soon as I agreed to take a phone call, the phone rang. The voice sounded vaguely familiar and I knew it wasn’t a surrogate or a campaign volunteer when the person said:
“I don’t think I’ve ever been called a ‘lying motherfucker’ before.”
It was Pete Buttigieg.
Well, I thought. Maybe he does want to fight.
Dee is not my friend.
He is my first cousin’s best friend. He is my best friend’s first cousin. He is quieter than me, tougher than me and spent time in prison. He is now a regular, middle-class father with children in college. I’ve known him all my life because we are the same age and walked to school together every day during our elementary years. Dee was not in my classes because I was sequestered away from the black students and took classes with the “smart kids.” The white kids. Honestly, all I really remember about Dee as a kid is that he said he was going to be a lawyer once when we were walking home from school.
A few weeks ago, while visiting South Carolina, Dee and I had the most meaningful conversation that we’ve ever had in the 35-plus years we’ve known each other. I couldn’t help but think to myself how intelligent, informed, how sensitive a person he was. We talked about politics, raising children and generational trauma. He spoke about being raised by parents who had to work multiple jobs to stay in what we call the lower-middle class, which often left him to fend for himself.
As we walked down memory lane, meandering through our adjacent childhoods, Dee recounted a story that has apparently stuck with him to this day. According to Dee, he came by my house one afternoon to play with my cousin while we were finishing dinner. As he watched through the screen door, my mother offered him some dinner, which he declined. She insisted, and he relented.
“Mikey, that food was so good,” he said. “And I was hungry as fuck.”
Then he reached the memorable part of the story. I have no recollection of these events but it sounded accurate. I know he was sharing an indelible memory because he told the anecdote with such amazement and wonder.
Dee says he distinctly remembers that everyone in the house—my sisters, my cousins, my aunt and my mom—sitting around the dinner table when I asked permission to go outside. My mother asked me if I had done my homework and, when I confirmed that I had, just before I exited the screen door, I said: “Thanks ma, that was really good!”
That’s the story.
Pete Buttigieg didn’t want to tell me his side of the story. He didn’t excuse himself by explaining that the comments referenced by the article were made years ago. He didn’t even try to explain his plan for black America.
“I think the context was important, especially the fact that it was before I took office,” Buttigieg said.
But mostly, he just wanted to listen.
For 18 minutes and 45 seconds, we talked about educational inequality, poverty and institutional racism in America and how to fix it.
I don’t know how to fix shit. As I explained to the presidential candidate (for some reason, I had to refrain from reflexively calling him “Mr. President”), my problem with his comments was not that they were wrong, it’s that he knows they were wrong.
“We have to disabuse ourselves from the notion that the problem with educational inequality is because of an esoteric lack of support,” I explained. “That’s a lie. And a man as educated as yourself knows it’s a lie. And to regurgitate that narrative publicly is not just dangerous, it is malpractice.”
I conceded that the problems with institutional racism are so complex and go back so far that I’m not sure that anyone—a mayor, a governor or even a president—could fix them. Buttigieg, however, insisted that there are some things that people in power could do to make things more equal, a point I actually agreed with.
“I do think there are some ways to attack these issues with policies that might solve these issues, but would certainly help.” he said.
“But do you disagree with the point I was making?” Mayor Buttigieg asked, listing a few programs designed to alleviate this specific problem. “Sometimes children don’t get to see the possibilities. Do you think the lack of positive examples of educational success can lead to mistrust and a lack of confidence in the system?”
“No...well, yes,” I answered. “But the lack of confidence doesn’t have anything to do with role models or support from parents, it’s because the shit is true!”
Look, I know I shouldn’t be using obscenities around the maybe-president (Please don’t tell my mother), but he said “motherfucker” first! Plus, he went to Catholic school and served in the Navy, two of the three cussing-est organizations in the world (Donald Trump’s cabinet remains No. 1). I’m pretty sure you have to say “motherfucker” to pass the Naval officers’ exam.
“Every study and data point shows that racism is baked into the education system,” I explained. “If your goal was to fix the problems in America’s schools, why would you even mention ‘confidence?’ A president can’t fix confidence. And you can’t say: ‘Black kids don’t have confidence in the system’ without pointing out all of the reasons they shouldn’t have confidence in the system.”
I told Buttigieg I actually watched the entire 58-minute interview before writing the article and pointed out that it was infuriating to watch four white men talk about what was broken in the black community without acknowledging who broke it and who refuses to fix it. I specifically noted the gentleman who spoke about a program that teaches 40 basic “building blocks” (honesty, integrity, parental support, role models, etc.) to make healthy adults and keep kids off the street.
Buttigieg agreed that the insipid “family values” argument has no place in political discussions because, as I noted, it infers that black parents don’t know the importance of a healthy family structure. However, the issues that cause those problems are rooted in poverty, inequality and America’s history of racism.
“It’s not like black parents wake up in the morning and say: I’mma just withhold my support and teach my kids about dishonesty and see what happens,” I explained. “No one knows the value of a two-parent home more than a single mother.”
So why is this important to black voters?
“Here’s why black voters support black candidates,” I said. “When you go into a room and sit around a table of white men, we are worried that this is what will happen; that a roomful of white people will talk about role models and confidence and crime and no one in the room will say: ‘Hold up, we can’t talk about any of this without talking about racism. We can’t talk about education without talking about discrimination.’ That is our fear.”
I have a friend named Greg. Greg is a white man.
I’ve known him since I was a teenager and he is probably reading this right now. He is probably the last white person I’ve had a long conversation on the phone with before Mayor Pete called me (Trust me, 18 minutes is an eternity for me). Greg and I became friends because he was in all of the “smart” classes with me. I’ve always found it remarkable how unremarkable he is. He’s sufficiently smart and adequately talented, but not more than Dee or any one of more than a dozen of my black friends I went to school with whose dream was to become a lawyer. Unlike any of my black friends, Greg eventually became a lawyer. Like his father. Like his grandfather.
Sometimes, Greg would come pick me up from my black-ass home in my black-ass neighborhood. He never seemed nervous about coming to my home but he has never eaten a meal with my family and probably couldn’t tell you the names of my sisters or maybe even my mother. To be fair, I don’t know his mother’s name either.
Yesterday, after reading the article about Pete Buttigieg, Greg texted that he never thought of me as “poor.”
“Well, I was,” I replied, before asking: “Never?”
He did not answer right away. You would have to understand the relationship between Greg and I to know this is not an unusual conversation. I literally have a signed piece of paper in my wallet that I present to racists acknowledging that I do indeed have a white friend.
“Trust me. I thought you were the richest person in the whole world,” I typed, before asking once more: “Never?”
“Well,” he replied. “There was that raggedy screen door.”
That’s the story.
Pete Buttigieg is a white man.
I didn’t say it like that. I told him he was obviously intelligent. I told him he was lucky to have all the privileges he was afforded. I told him that it was clear that he was hard-working.
“But,” I said. “You are a white man.”
“A mediocre white kid with mediocre intelligence and mediocre parents can easily make it in America,” I explained, blackly. “A smart black kid with smart parents and a supportive community still has to fight every day to hope to reach the levels of what a mediocre white man accomplishes. And, odds are, they still might not make it.”
He is not the perfect candidate nor will there be one. But this does not mean the Democratic Party is divided. The entire point of the primary process is for voters to dictate their concerns to the candidates and for candidates to learn from voters. Black America wants their party to emerge victorious but not if we have to offer our votes as a living sacrifice for the sake of “party unity.” What good is a white savior if he doesn’t save us?
And, as I told the mayor, the article wasn’t meant to inspire outrage. Its purpose was to make a necessary point about black voters and real issues. There is no way that I can know if he is genuinely interested in engaging black voters, attacking discrimination or crossing the racial divide. There are an infinite number of candidates who have waded into black barbershops or sashayed into black pulpits to assure us that they were on our side when they were only interested in our vote. I am not smart or prescient enough to tell the difference.
The only thing I actually know about Pete Buttigieg is that he is a white man.
But Pete Buttigieg listened, which is all you can ask a white man to do.
Unless, of course, he wants to fight.