Pete Buttigieg And Politically Motivated Racial Outrage

His tenure as mayor of a city with black residents is his only weakness

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Image Credit: Lucy Hewitt, NPR

Up until recently, (former) Mayor Pete Buttigieg was a practically unknown figure in national politics. But the bungled Iowa Caucuses of 2020 have catapulted him to the forefront of the Democratic primary. For that reason, Buttigieg was suddenly a threat to the other candidates at the 2020 Democratic debate in New Hampshire. For those of us who have been paying attention to him since early 2019, his rise to the top is not surprising. But everyone else seems to be taken off-guard by the brilliant young newcomer.

Buttigieg has faced his fair share of criticism in previous debates, and he has generally handled them with poise and balance. But, in the debate in New Hampshire, he seemed surprisingly unprepared for a common line of attack about the racial inequity in South Bend. As a young, white mayor of a city with many minority residents, he has been under constant fire for not fixing systemic racism in his city. And this has led to a popular media narrative about his “struggles and stumbles with black voters” on a national level.

It’s convenient to push the narrative that Buttigieg has unresolved racial justice issues, but the data doesn’t support the claim made by Linsey Davis in the New Hampshire debate. In fact, after Mayor Pete took office in 2012, the number of black individuals arrested for marijuana possession steadily decreased each year. If you want to blame Mayor Pete Buttigieg for the problems in his city, then you need to give him credit where credit is due.

There are many different directions that I want to take this article; I think it’s extremely important to have a more open dialogue about race relations and inequality in the U.S., and South Bend’s problems have a lot in common with the inequity of my own city (and every American city). But I’d like to take this opportunity to rebut a very specific claim made by one of the moderators in the New Hampshire debate, Linsey Davis. She asked Pete Buttigieg a question that led to this exchange:

Davis: “How do you explain that increase in black arrests [for marijuana possession] under your leadership?”

Buttigieg: “The reality is, on my watch, drug arrests were lower than the national average and specifically to marijuana, lower than Indiana.”

Davis: “How do you explain the increase in black arrests in South Bend under your leadership for marijuana possession?”

Buttigieg: “And again, the overall rate was lower…”

Davis: “No, there was an increase — the year before you were in office it was lower. Once you became in office in 2012 that number went up.”

Linsey Davis held a powerful role as a moderator in the New Hampshire debate, and she used that position to make some very specific claims. Unfortunately, most of her argument was just flat out wrong. I won’t go so far as to say that she was “outright lying” (like Chris Christie said of Pete), but I will say that she was either misinterpreting the data or being lied to. Or, as I’ve written about before, she has no idea how to properly vet her sources.

(EDIT: I’ve seen some comments that she was talking specifically about the disparity between black and white arrests, but that’s not what she asked. The way she framed her question certainly contributes to the confusion — she stated a statistic, then asked about a different, but related statistic. Imagine if I said, Pit bulls accounted for 65% of fatal dog attacks on humans from 2005 to 2017. How do you explain the violent behavior of your pit bull?” You might be confused by this question if you don’t have a pit bull. You might be even more confused if you do have a pit bull, but you know it’s not violent.)

Let’s take a look at how her claims hold up to the actual evidence that I collected from the FBI Crime Data Explorer. But, before we do that, I should point out the disclaimer on the FBI website that says,

Avoid ranking and comparison: …the FBI discourages ranking locations or making comparisons as a way of measuring law enforcement effectiveness. Some of this data may not be comparable to previous years because of differing levels of participation over time.

For example, many law enforcement agencies (including the ones in South Bend) changed their system for reporting crimes to the FBI in 2018. If you look at the data for 2018, there is a huge spike in the reported numbers of all crimes. But this reflects a change in the reporting requirements rather than an increase in actual crimes committed. For this reason, I chose to omit the 2018 statistics from my analysis. So be forewarned: we’re not supposed to be using the data this way.

Davis stated quite clearly that black arrests for possession of marijuana increased under Mayor Pete’s leadership in South Bend. Pete responded by making a counterclaim, that drug arrests were actually lower under his leadership. Being a Pete supporter, I was inclined to believe him over the moderator. But, being a researcher, I had to find out for myself. See the graph below for the actual numbers as reported by the FBI.

This graph makes it apparent that, after Mayor Pete took office in 2012, the number of black individuals arrested for marijuana possession steadily decreased each year. Although the drop from 2011 (the year before Pete took office) to 2012 wasn’t huge, it was in fact a decrease. It’s convenient to push the narrative that Buttigieg has unresolved racial justice issues, but the data doesn’t support the claim made by Linsey Davis in the New Hampshire debate.

Furthermore, Pete tried to counter the false narrative with some stats of his own. He said that not only was Davis wrong, but South Bend actually looks better than the rest of the nation on this particular metric. So I graphed that data too. Below you can see how South Bend stacks up against Indiana and the country as a whole when it comes to black arrests for marijuana possession.

This graph makes it clear that, in 2015 (as Pete’s second mayoral term began), the rate of black arrests for marijuana possession in South Bend fell below the rates of both the state and the nation as a whole. But that information isn’t very helpful when it comes to painting Buttigieg as a racial justice failure. If you want to blame Mayor Pete Buttigieg for the problems in his city, then you need to give him credit where credit is due.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s productive to focus on these little details. The arrest stats in South Bend pale in comparison to the grand scheme of the issues we face in the United States. I’ve written previously about the dangers of constantly fact-check Trump, and I think the same principle applies here — when we get too wrapped up in arguing about technical details, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Times are changing, and society is lagging behind.

Politics has always been a kind of performance in which politicians play the leading roles. But with the advent of the internet and social media, political processes have become frighteningly fabricated. Surely, there are problems to solve, and racial equity is at the top of the list for Democrats. But it is incredibly dangerous to use race relations as a weapon against your political allies — that’s precisely the kind of drama that Trump and the New Republicans thrive on.

What is it exactly that people are asking for when they question Pete Buttigieg’s record in this way? Are they implying that he’s not fit to be the president because he hasn’t fixed racism? Or that he himself is racist? Do they want to make themselves look better by comparison? Or just make him look bad? I’m confused about the purpose of this sort of identity politicking. It seems to me that the main purpose of racial equity discussions is not to make things better for marginalized populations, but to drum up attention for a sick kind of entertainment value.

It all reminds me of a quote by Carl Sagan:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time… when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

So thank you for taking the time to read and think critically. And please, if you feel the moral obligation to solve the problems of this world, stop for a moment and think — do the solutions to our problems require us to fight about them? If they do require a fight, can we fight without forgetting what’s really important? Because if we can’t, then there’s no point in fighting at all.

Author of Organumics: An Epigenetic Re-Framing of Consciousness, Life, and Evolution.

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