On June 16, 2019, South Bend, Indiana Sergeant Ryan O’Neill shot and killed Eric Logan, a 54-year-old father of seven, in a parking lot. O’Neill, whose body camera was turned off at the time, claimed self-defense, alleging that Logan, a black man, had pulled a knife on him when he approached to ask if the car Logan was peering into was his own. Logan’s family and local activists called foul on O’Neill’s claim, and the shooting reignited long-standing tensions between the black community and police officers in the small Indiana city.
The Logan family decided to sue the city of South Bend, calling O’Neill’s actions “objectively unreasonable and undertaken with willfulness and reckless indifference to the rights of others.” And a recent town hall to discuss the shooting, which included heated debates about the handling of the shooting and the police force’s long-contentious relationship with the black community, threw into relief a major problem for the town’s Mayor and presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg.
South Bend resident and veteran member of the South Bend Common Council Oliver Davis told the Washington Post, “[Buttigieg] skipped the family vigil, full of black residents. And then he gave a speech to the police. So how do you think that went over?”
This incident has highlighted what critics have long called Buttigieg’s “black problem” — a seeming lack of ability to connect with or even provide actionable solutions to entrenched problems facing black constituents, dating back to when he first took office in 2012. Which is perhaps why Buttigieg released The Douglass Plan, a comprehensive racial justice platform yesterday, July 11, in his bid to become the Democratic candidate for President.
Buttigieg’s team calls the plan, named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “a comprehensive and intentional dismantling of racist structures and systems combined with an equally intentional and affirmative investment of unprecedented scale in the freedom and self-determination of Black Americans.”
His plan is broken down into three overarching goals: freedom, security, and democracy. High-flying? Yes. But each goal includes numerous actionable proposals that would address inequity from various angles. Here’s what’s in the Douglass Plan.
Why racial justice?
The systemic racism baked into the American government has prevented black Americans and other communities of color from receiving adequate access to programs that would make them economically and socially happy and healthy. What do we mean when we say systemic racism? The short version: the U.S. was built thanks to chattel slavery, and though slavery ended with the Civil War, the U.S. has continued certain policies — official and unofficial — that purposefully disadvantage people of color, from the early 1900s Jim Crow laws in the south to far more recent zoning and tax laws. According to Democracy, structurally racist systems like “residential segregation result[ed] not from private choices or from mere economics, but from a long history of pervasive, intentionally discriminatory government actions.”
Systemic racism is everywhere: whether by preventing black Americans from accessing important means of wealth-building, access to health care or education, or even in the implicit biases of potential employers, teachers, police officers, and other people in positions of authority.
One telling example? Incarceration. According to Common Dreams, “While African Americans comprise 13% of the US population and 14% of monthly drug users they are 37% of the people arrested for drug offenses.”
And whether we’re talking about health — due in large part to gaps in coverage (black Americans are more likely to be uninsured) and lower quality care (in part, thanks to ingrained biases that prevent black patients from being heard), black Americans are more likely to die early — or education or even implicit biases (snap judgments based on appearances, etc.) against black Americans based on hair or clothing, racism lingers just about everywhere in this country. Given that almost 40 percent of the population is people of color, including Hispanic whites, this is a problem for everyone. Discrimination against any part of the population is a stain on us all morally. And, in a purely practical sense, it harms the country by limiting economic growth and educational potential for millions of people.
What is Buttigieg promising?
Buttigieg wants to reform the following areas: health care, education, the criminal justice system, infrastructure, entrepreneurship, and voting rights, which he sees as core areas where deeply-ingrained racist practices and policies can and should be reformed.
That’s a lot. But each area is broken down into several proposals. Here’s what he wants to do.
The black community suffers from enormous health disparities in the U.S.. According to the Centers for Disease Control, black Americans are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, and other preventable diseases. Additionally, the black maternal mortality rate is three times higher than the white maternal mortality rate.
Buttigieg’s plan would do the following:
- Create what he calls an interagency National Health Equity Strategy, which would aim to address racial health care disparities by developing policies in numerous federal agencies.
- Create and fund Health Equity Zones, local programs which will identify and address “economic, social, and political determinants of health in a community” and whose continued funding will be contingent upon creating “concrete, executable plans” to address health disparities.
- Combat biases among health care workers by collecting data and creating frameworks and protocols to address these problems.
- Address the underrepresentation of black Americans working in the health care sector.
- Reinvigorate the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, whose funding is currently at risk and which most recently issued a rule protecting health care workers who refuse to provide services (like abortion) on religious grounds.
As we addressed in our explainer on Elizabeth Warren’s racial wealth gap policy: education is a chief way in which Americans build wealth, and it’s a chief way in which black Americans are being discriminated against. Low per-student spending in predominantly black schools, a lack of intergenerational wealth which leads to higher rates of borrowing for student loans, and high rates of segregation have all led to what is effectively a two-tiered education system that actively harms students of color.
Here’s how Buttigieg wants to fix this:
- Increase Title I funding to “support higher teacher pay and supplemental services for lower-income students above and beyond state and local funding resources” including prevention programs for at-risk youth, reading programs, and drop-out prevention programs.
- Create new guidelines for Title II funding in order to incentivize recruiting more teachers of color.
- Eliminate tuition at public institutes of higher education for lower-income students.
- Invest more money into the Pell Grant program so the lowest income students can attend school without having to work.
- Cancel student debt for those who borrowed to attend low-quality, for-profit schools, which disproportionately prey on first-generation students of color.
- Increase federal funding by $25 billion for historically black colleges and universities and other minority institutions.
- Create a “Dear Colleague” letter which will create protocols for how to properly teach black history and the racist history of the U.S. in K-12 schools.
Black Americans are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system, with extremely high rates of arrest and incarceration, so Buttigieg has promised to do the following:
- Abolish private prisons, which incentivize higher arrest rates.
- Support a Constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, which is disproportionately used on prisoners of color.
- Reduce the criminalization of poverty.
- Expand alternative to incarceration programs
- Eliminate federal incarceration for drug possession
- Reduce the incarceration rate by half at both the federal and state level.
- Create a racial justice-minded Department of Justice by appointing an Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, and U.S. Sentencing Commissioners “deeply committed to achieving this goal.
The U.S.’s infrastructure is breaking down across the board. But shoddy roads, health and safety hazards in residential buildings, and environmental breakdowns like polluted air, compromised water sources, and even climate change-exacerbated natural disasters disproportionately affect black Americans. Here’s what Buttigieg is proposing:
- Re-invest in the Environmental Protection Agency, which has had its budget on the chopping block three years in a row, and require them to consider environmental justice in all of their decisions.
- Address the existence of lead-based paint in housing across the U.S., coordinating efforts between the EPA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the CDC.
- Create a public health database which will track patterns and be able to warn of environmental health crises, including climate change-induced crises and “clusters of chronic and infectious disease” (often connected to pollution).
- Create stable and predictable funding and rapid deployment protocols for emergency disaster relief to prevent what happened after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and 2017’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Labor markets and homeownership are two ways in which racial injustice is perpetuated. From baldly racist policies like redlining, which prevented people in low-income areas from getting mortgages and which still persists today, to implicit biases like discrimination in the hiring process based on learned social behaviors or even assumptions about people’s names, the American economy doesn’t work with or for black Americans.
Here’s how Buttigieg plans on fixing that:
- Under the umbrella of what he’s calling the Walker-Lewis Initiative, whose aim is “to triple the number of entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds within 10 years,” Buttigieg will roll-out four chief proposals:
- Create a public-private Entrepreneurship Fund which would invest in and train entrepreneurs in underrepresented communities
- Create a Debt-For-Jobs Plan, which will defer or forgive student loans over a period of five years for all Pell Grant-eligible students who start and maintain a business with at least three employees.
- Award 25 percent of federal contracting dollars to small business owners from underrepresented communities.
- Create a Task Force to identify ways in which to meet entrepreneurship goals
- Raise the minimum wage to $15/hour.
- “Vigorously” enforce civil rights laws to prevent employee discrimination.
- Create mentorship programs and resource groups, and fund research and White House Summits on equal employment.
- Create a Community Homestead Act, which would create a public trust to buy up abandoned buildings and provide them to eligible residents in order to foster wealth-building homeownership in traditionally marginalized communities and redlined neighborhoods.
Elements such as mass incarceration — which disproportionately affects black Americans and often leads to a loss of voting rights — gerrymandering (or the drawing of district lines in order to create unfair disadvantages, which disproportionately negatively affects communities of color), lack of voting access in disadvantaged communities, and the presidential voting system all converge to create unfair voting practices which all but disenfranchise large swaths of communities of color. So here’s what Buttigieg says he’d like to do about it:
- Eliminate the Electoral College and introduce a national popular vote instead, as the EC not only has a racist origin story but also gives outsized weight to votes from rural, disproportionately white states.
- Authorize a new pre-clearance procedure for the Voting Rights Act which will prevent racist voting laws from going into effect (instead of relying on civil rights nonprofits to sue when they’re signed into law).
- Develop policies to prevent the proliferation of fake news across social media.
- Create a public financing system which would provide dollar-for-dollar matches to small donors and prevent big donors from dominating the political process.
- Overturn the Citizens United decision.
- Grant statehood to Washington, D.C., whose population is 48 percent black, so they can have full representation in the U.S. government.
- Fight gerrymandering, which is often used as a tool to disenfranchise historically marginalized communities.
Phew, that is a lot.
Is it enough?
There are plenty of people — pundits, journalists, and Twitter randos alike — who are willing to give kudos to Mayor Pete. After all, it is an extremely comprehensive plan which, if implemented, would start to do the hard work of dismantling oppressive systems at the heart of the U.S.’s treatment of black Americans.
That said, the anger of his constituents in South Bend didn’t come out of nowhere.
At the town hall addressing Logan’s shooting, protesters interrupted Buttigieg. One woman yelled, “Are you really here because you care about blacks, or are you just here because you want to be the president?”
To understand the anger directed at Buttigieg, you need to go back to 2012, when he had just taken office.
A South Bend detective recorded several police officers allegedly making racist remarks about then-Police Chief Darryl Boykins, the city’s first black police chief, and discussing breaking the law. Buttigieg fired then-Communications Director Karen DePaepe and asked Boykins to resign over allegations that the recordings were illegal and that Boykins threatened subordinates. Only a few months later, three white police officers entered a black family’s home without permission and “handcuffed, punched and used a stun gun on 17-year-old Deshawn Franklin, who was asleep in his bed and whom the police mistakenly believed was a suspect.” Those same three officers harassed a 7/11 employee only a few months later.
In fact, throughout the years, Buttigieg has either refused to release documents relating to possible police misconduct or has otherwise let down black residents in his responses to numerous incidents of police violence against black residents of South Bend. It’s no wonder they’re giving him the side-eye.
To boot, there are some promises that don’t have actionable proposals behind them. For example: abolish the criminalization of poverty by pushing to “eliminate arrests and incarceration as punishment for failing to pay legal financial obligations.” How does he plan on doing this? How does he plan on getting rid of regressive taxes and fees that criminalize poverty? An executive order? A law that he works with the Senate to develop? Another example: Address underrepresentation of black Americans working in the health care sector. There’s no proposal for how to accomplish this, whether an executive order, a grant program, or some other legislative means.
Most of the platform, however, is quite sound, outlining grant programs, executive orders or other executive protocols, and high-level hiring processes that would, indeed, address racial injustices in the U.S. And it’s all necessary, even if reducing the criminalization of poverty is, for now, just a pretty sentence. After all, take into account not only the current administration but even the recent history of Democratic administrations. Particularly: the Clinton administration’s 1994 Crime Bill, which seriously exacerbated racist mass incarceration policies.
The fact that we have a candidate who has released a lengthy platform specifically meant to address inequities facing black Americans is, frankly, amazing. Especially when you look at some of the other front-runners in this busy field: while you have candidates like Kamala Harris, a black woman who herself was a beneficiary of school busing, and Warren, who has a racial wealth gap policy proposal and talks about the black maternal mortality rate and reproductive justice, you also have Bernie Sanders, who has frequently been accused of erasing people of color from his “working class” rhetoric. Then there’s former Vice President Joe Biden, whose policies on race are enough to make anyone with even a semblance of awareness cringe.
So is Mayor Pete’s proposal enough? That’s tough to say. But it’s a huge start, full of actionable ideas, and the public reaction will help shape how the rest of the primary proceeds. Problems of racial injustice in America won’t be solved until we put plans like this one in place. Kudos to Buttigieg for recognizing that.