“I’m going to Dyngus Day,” said Kareemah Fowler, city clerk for South Bend, Ind., when I called her for an interview. “What’s a Dyngus?” I asked, desperately trying not to giggle like a 7th grader. Fowler explained that Dyngus Day is a big festival for South Bend’s Polish community, a chance for state and local politicians to do some retail politicking, but for the black community, it’s called “Solidarity Day.”
“The black community was like, you politicians need our vote, so instead of us coming all the way over to the Polish side of town, you need to come over here,” she said proudly.
This year, Mayor Pete Buttigieg dutifully came to the African American Elk’s Lodge and renamed the local intersection “Solidarity Day Drive” as part of the Dyngus Day tradition. It’s a symbolic gesture, but a telling one, even on a national scale. If Mayor Pete wants to extend his reach from media darling to actual Democratic contender, he’ll have to reach out to black voters, the backbone of the Democratic Party, and he’ll have to have more than symbolic gestures. If my conversations with black residents of South Bend are any indicator, it’s not yet clear that he’s up for the job.
Ask African Americans about Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s relationship with the black community, and the Midwestern politeness comes out. They like him, he’s smart, he’s their mayor, but...
“I can’t necessarily say that [the relationship is] good. But I will say he’s come a long way,” said Fowler, a Buttigieg supporter, who in 2015, with Buttigieg’s help, became St. Joseph County’s first ever minority elected executive.
“He’s evolving,” “He’s getting better,” “You don’t know what you don’t know” are what you hear about Mayor Pete from black residents. You can almost hear a collective church clap and a bless his heart as they detail his numerous early stumbles with black voters. Some residents however, are much less diplomatic.
“South Bend, Ind. has one of the darkest histories of segregation of anywhere in the country, and it’s something we still haven’t properly addressed,” said Nate Levin-Aspenson.
Levin-Aspenson is an activist and grant writer from Durham, N.C. A white millennial, he moved to South Bend with his wife right around Mayor Pete’s second term. We talked as he campaigned for Regina Preston, a black city councilwoman running for mayor, inspired in part by Buttigieg’s controversial “1,000 homes in 1,000 Days” program. Nate acknowledges many of black South Bend’s problems preceded Mayor Buttigieg, but the mayor hasn’t done much to change them either.
For example, several residents I spoke with pointed to the federal consent decree on South Bend schools due to segregation and treatment of black students. Even worse, the school-to-prison pipeline isn’t just a pipeline in South Bend; it’s a broken, flooded dam, with some residents remembering students as young as the second grade being put out of school.
While the South Bend school system does not fall under the direct control of the mayor, he does wield some influence. However, throughout two terms, no one, including black surrogates for Mayor Buttigieg, could point to examples of him tackling school segregation.
“Your policies are your values,” said Levin-Aspenson, who cautioned that the 2020 Democratic candidate on 24-hour cable networks doesn’t always align with the mayor residents know. “It’s either it wasn’t a priority for him because that’s not where his values are, or it wasn’t a priority because he couldn’t get it done fast enough for it to be a finished problem, by the time he was done in eight years.”
How can black residents seem to like Mayor Pete yet collectively shoulder shrug about many of his policies? You have to understand the status of black people in most Rust Belt cities. These are cities built with ethnic whites and working-class African Americans; Slavic grocers selling pierogis on one block and large black churches built during the Great Migration on the other. Systematic discrimination keeps many African Americans out of stable city jobs and elected office. Ferguson-level police harassment keeps many residents living in fear. Consequently small, even symbolic gestures mean a lot to a black community often left powerless and voiceless.
I spoke to community leader Gladys Muhammed, a feisty older black woman with a great sense of humor. When I asked what was the best thing Mayor Pete did for the black community in South Bend she said: “He did give us a Martin Luther King Boulevard. He stood right up and made it happen, on a main street too!”
She was not the only person to point to Mayor Pete’s establishing MLK boulevard as his signature accomplishment for the black community. My first reaction, and likely the reaction of most people outside of Indiana, is praising a white mayor for naming a Martin Luther King boulevard in 2017 is an incredibly low bar. However, South Bend white business owners had resisted the name change for more than 40 years. Black members on the naming committee received death threats. Viewed in the context of South Bend’s racial politics, many older black voters were impressed. Mayor Pete also hired a chief diversity officer and enacted a Diversity and Inclusion plan to address some city issues, but it took him awhile to get there.
“I think that it was a conscious decision, that he needed to get to know the African-American community,” said Muhammed. “Because when he first came on...He did some things we were upset about.”
Those “things” include firing the city’s first black police chief for allegedly disciplining officers who were caught on tape making racist comments and alluding to criminal activity. The fact that Sound Bend’s Police Department paid out over $1.3 million in brutality and civil rights settlements in the first five years Mayor Pete was in office, and the drop in the few black firemen and cops, didn’t help either.
During a community dinner, residents recalled how South Bend’s city jobs were so discriminatory that the black community used to essentially run an “underground school” to help people pass the police exam. Lawyers and teachers from all over the area would meet in secret on the weekends to train young men and women for police and fire department tests. But residents say the police officers who benefited from this are all retiring and that the community is now “too spread out” to do it anymore. You would think that’s when a dynamic young mayor would step in to make a difference.
When I asked Fowler about the stalled diversity in Mayor Pete’s campaign and administration, she expressed similar concerns. “I don’t think he has a racist bone in his body,” she said. “But he’s the mayor and the buck stops with him.”
As a mayor from a city with a 40 percent minority population, Mayor Pete’s integration of African Americans on his staff and campaign lags far behind 2020 candidates like Julian Castro and Cory Booker, who were also mayors. While the black residents of South Bend, Ind., may be patient with Mayor Pete’s tepid black policies, it’s hard to imagine his record will translate well to the black base of the Democratic Party as a whole. In the face of Trump’s open bigotry and white nationalism, will symbolic gestures and good intentions be enough for black voters?
I think I got my answer from a group of black professionals at a conference in the city.
“I like him, he’s smart...And I think he knows how to work the system,” said a middle-age black woman during a group lunch interview. “If he’s not out waving a banner saying I did this for you black people, then a lot of people are like ahh, I don’t know if he’s for us or not, but behind the scenes he gets stuff done.”
“Yeah, but behind the scenes, I don’t know if that’ll get him elected to president though,” said a Gen X grad student. “A thing I’ve noticed about the difference between say older people and the younger generation...is if you are not demolishing [white supremacy] from jump then that’s not gonna work.”
Pete Buttigieg can’t wave a magic dyngus and change himself from a moderate to a progressive on race, and his record isn’t inspiring. In the next 10 months, we’ll see if national black Democrats are as patient with him as South Bend.
Editor’s Note: Additional reporting on this story was done by Dr. Stacey Patton of Morgan State University.