Right around the halfway mark of the second of two Democratic presidential debates on Thursday night, something rare and significant transpired on stage between the 10 candidates on hand: a very public reckoning on race in America.
The conversation began with a pointed question for Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who took several days off from the campaign trail last week in order to return to his South Bend, Indiana, community and deal with the fallout of a police-involved shooting of a middle-aged black man.
Alongside Buttigieg’s rise in the polls has come heightened scrutiny of his checkered history dealing with the city’s large black community, particularly when it comes to matters of policing. His return to the city last week, to meet with community leaders and ease flared tempers, succeeded mostly in amplifying Buttigieg’s perceived shortcomings on issues of race.
Moderator Rachel Maddow acknowledged as much, and asked Buttigieg why, in his city where more than a quarter of the population is black, less than 10 percent of the police force is comprised of black officers.
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg said bluntly. “I could walk you through all of the things we have done as a community, all of the steps that we took from biased training to deescalation, but it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan,” he said, referring to the African American man killed in the police shooting.
“And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back,” Buttigieg said.
The latest incident in South Bend is not an isolated one. Early in Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor, he fired the city’s black police chief for surreptitiously recording phone calls made by his subordinates. The decision rankled many in the black community, and Buttigieg’s relationship with his black constituents has been on thin ice ever since.
That was evident at a town hall event held in the wake of Logan’s death, where Buttigieg faced harsh criticism and harsher reviews afterwards.
On Thursday, Buttigieg’s attempt at self-reflection was met with skepticism from two of his debate partners. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper questioned why it’s taken South Bend and other cities so long to address issues of police violence, while Rep. Eric Swalwell demanded to know why Buttigieg didn’t fire the police chief.
“Until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there’s a wall of mistrust, put up one racist act at a time,” said Buttigieg. “Not just from what’s happened in the past, but from what’s happening around the country in the present.”