Pete Buttigieg needs to fix his perception among Black voters. Can he do it?

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At fourth place in the national polling average, Pete Buttigieg is a relative frontrunner in the Democratic primary race. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has bested buzzier 2020 candidates with bigger national profiles, like Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Cory Booker (N.J.). But if Buttigieg doesn’t eventually win over Black voters, he won’t get much further.

Buttigieg has struggled mightily in his quest to win over this crucial Democratic voting bloc. His troubles first garnered national attention in October, when a leaked memo appeared to blame Black people’s skepticism of Buttigieg on homophobia.

The memo stemmed from an internal focus group the Buttigieg campaign conducted over three sessions with 24 Black undecided voters in Columbia, South Carolina, according to The State, a South Carolina-based newspaper. The details of the discussion were published in a 21-page report that was leaked to McClatchy news service.

Per The State, the report found that “being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it.” When it comes to Buttigieg, the report continued, “their preference is for his sexuality to not be front and center.” One voter in the focus group reportedly admitted that he doesn’t “like the fact that [Buttigieg] threw out there that he lives with his husband.” The report ultimately concluded that Buttigieg’s sexuality was not a “disqualifier,” The State said, but that it was a real hurdle for voters who didn’t get why Buttigieg mentioned his sexual orientation at all.

These findings alarmed people who took them to mean that homophobia was the only reason Black people weren’t into Buttigieg. A tweet from singer Boy George summed up their outrage.

However, several Black critics took issue with that narrative, outlining their grievances and noting that ascribing Buttigieg's lack of connection with Black voters to homophobia smacks of racism. In an op-ed last month, Washington Post writer Jonathan Capeheart called the notion an "ugly lie."

"Black voters don’t own homophobia and they are not monolithic. Black voters have their specific concerns and they have hopes, dreams, and aspirations that are as American as they come," he wrote. "If candidates want their votes, they have to work for them continually and ask for them with sincerity. And if a candidate fails to win over African Americans, the fault is not those voters."

Charles M. Blow of The New York Times, meanwhile, described the argument as "a disgusting, racist trope, secretly nursed and insidiously whispered by white liberals with contempt for the very Black people they court and need." Blow additionally accused white liberals of infantilizing Black people because they see "Black voters as needing to be led, directed, and better informed rather than as sophisticated voters" who are capable of forming their own conclusions.

“There is a myth that the Black community is 'more' homophobic than others, despite research that has shown otherwise,” writer and activist George M. Johnson tells Mic. Johnson, who identifies as Black and non-binary, penned an op-ed on the topic for LGBTQ-centric magazine The Advocate in which he acknowledged that the Black community struggles with homophobia and transphobia — just like every other community. In the piece, he asked: "Is it for white folks to call out said homophobia in the Black community as a guise to ignore the anti-Blackness of the Mayor Pete campaign?"

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It’s worth noting again that the focus group memo explicitly stated that Buttigieg’s sexuality wasn’t a deal-breaker for the respondents. “After seeing the mayor speak, most voters in the group seemed to be able to get past his sexual orientation,” the document read. “Most found his eloquence and presentation style to be appealing.”

“The Black community deals with homophobia and transphobia much like every other community," Johnson tells Mic, "yet it is scapegoated ... so white people don't have to do the work to earn our community's trust.”

Johnson might be on to something. Tellingly, since the focus group hoopla, Buttigieg’s luck hasn’t changed. In mid-November, The Intercept reported that the campaign used a stock photo of a Kenyan woman in Kenya on a webpage for the Douglass Plan, the campaign's list of intended reforms for the Black American community. The campaign eventually apologized for the mistake on Nov. 18, but not before the photo's use became a metaphor for Buttigieg's larger struggles with Black Americans.

Mic reached out to Buttigieg's camp several times for an interview about their outreach to Black voters. His team agreed in November to make Jarvis Houston and Garrett McDaniel — Buttigieg's state director and deputy policy director, respectively — available for an interview, but then canceled minutes before the scheduled discussion. There was a second attempt by Mic earlier this month to interview Houston and McDaniel, but after agreeing to talk on a specific day, Buttigieg's camp simply did not respond when asked to set a time, and the day passed.

One day after Buttigieg's campaign apologized for erroneously using the photo of the Kenyan woman, a Quinnipiac University poll of South Carolina’s Democratic voters put Buttigieg’s problems in stark terms: He received less than 1% support from Black voters.

His troubles didn’t stop there. Buttigieg found himself in hot water once again after he seemingly compared the discrimination he faced as a gay man to being Black.

“While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate,” Buttigieg said at last month's Democratic debate, per The Washington Post. The comments were met with backlash from people who believed Buttigieg made a false equivalency. Harris spoke for many when she said Buttigieg was "a bit naive" during an appearance at the Black Women Power Breakfast last month, per CBS News.

"Those of us who've been involved in civil rights for a long time, we know that it is important that we not compare our struggles. It is not productive, it is not smart, and strategically it works against what we need to do, which is build coalition," Harris said.

Buttigieg has also faced criticism for how he runs South Bend, especially after a Black man was killed there by the police in June. “His record with Black issues is just not good,” Johnson says. “He has been very anti-Black in policy and in action in the town of South Bend, and it is very well known.”

Critics in particular point to when Buttigieg fired South Bend's first Black police chief in 2012, just two months after taking office. Buttigieg claimed the termination was in response to an FBI investigation that alleged that the official, Darryl Boykins, had been improperly taping white police officers in an attempt to catch them using racist language about him, per the Times. No one besides Boykins faced consequences.

"Black folks have been lied to by white politicians to gain their vote since we have been allowed to vote."

Boykins later sued the city of South Bend for racial discrimination, "[citing] 'racial animus' on the part of Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Chief of Staff Mike Schmuhl as the reason for his demotion from chief to captain," the South Bend Tribune reported. He won a $50,000 settlement. In his memoir, Buttigieg admitted that the Boykins controversy "affected my relationship with the African American community in particular for years to come."

Considering South Bend isn’t that big of a city, Buttigieg was already facing an uphill battle in making his case, compared to other candidates who are used to having national platforms. “He is simply a mayor of a town of 100,000 people, catapulted by white media with the expectation that Black people would just flock to him without cause,” Johnson says.

Buttigieg has some folks in his corner, though. BuzzFeed News's Henry J. Gomez reported earlier this month, after traveling to South Bend and speaking with more than a dozen local figures, most of whom were people of color, that the "anger directed toward Buttigieg over his policies" and the slow pace of progress "is real and visceral," but "any notion that he has ignored these issues or navigated them without advice from the city’s Black community is incorrect." In his report, Gomez quoted several Black leaders who support Buttigieg — although several demurred when asked whether their support equated to an official endorsement.

However, Sean Shaw, a Black lawyer and former member of Florida’s House of Representatives, believes openly in Buttigieg. “Mayor Pete is the person who makes me feel the best about the future of the country,” Shaw tells Mic.

Shaw says he got goosebumps when he first heard Buttigieg speak and believes the mayor will be instrumental in ushering the next generation of politicians. He’s also fond of the Douglass Plan, because he feels it addresses the root of the Black community’s issues. Shaw believes Buttigieg can help Black people achieve “sustainable wealth.”

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“Usually we see these plans and they’re aimed at the symptoms,” Shaw explains. “I like the Douglass Plan because it goes after the root causes, which is inequities in home ownership, health disparities, HBCU funding, [and] making sure the government is spending money in the African American community.”

Still, Shaw concedes that Buttigieg could do well to refine his messaging, too. “He’s still got to work at addressing things that Black voters want to hear,” Shaw says, though he didn't provide details as to how exactly Buttigieg could go about that when Mic asked.

In reality, the homophobia narrative provided easy — and racist — cover for Buttigieg's real problem: a lack of proposals that authentically excite Black voters. He tried to push his Douglass Plan by touting endorsements from 400 South Carolina residents but, as The Intercept revealed, approximately 184 of the listed supporters were self-identified white voters. Johnnie Cordero, chair of the South Carolina state party’s Black Caucus, told the Intercept that he was added to the list without his permission. He had been in contact with Buttigieg's team, he told The Intercept, but he never endorsed the plan or the man behind it.

Specifically, Cordero had reservations about the plan because he wasn't convinced actual Black people provided input. “I had some difficulties with it. It’s entirely presumptuous,” he told The Intercept. "It’s presumptuous to think you can come up with a plan for Black America without hearing from Black folk. There’s nothing in there that said Black folk had anything to do with the drafting of that plan." Cordero did tell the website, though, that he "like[s]" Buttigieg and "think[s] he's an honest man."

"But you don't do that," Cordero continued. "We're tired of people telling us what we need. You wanna find out what we need? Come and ask us."

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If Buttigieg can confidently articulate a platform that speaks to the diverse and complex interests of the Black voter, perhaps he'll be able to come out of the fall looking strong. He's leading in Iowa — the first state to weigh in on the Democratic primary — but the narrative that he can't connect with Black voters has been an albatross so far for his campaign. Whether he can authentically remedy the situation remains to be seen.

Johnson believes that for Buttigieg to recover, he'll need to start by owning his mistakes. He must "acknowledge the harm that he and his policy has caused, atone for that harm,” Johnson says. “Black folks have been lied to by white politicians to gain their vote since we have been allowed to vote. [Buttigieg must] stop blaming them for issues he created himself.”

As other candidates drop like flies, Buttigieg appears to have an increasingly clear path to victory in the Democratic race. But he'll have to make real overtures to the Democratic Party's most important voting bloc first. It will take more than internal focus groups and outdated assumptions to get there.