As Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg bounced around South Carolina trying to drum up black support recently, media coverage was thick. Buttigieg is a flavor of the moment in a campaign that may burn through a dozen media darlings.
His outreach did not work. Even in heavily black communities like North Charleston and Orangeburg, the crowds for the South Bend, Indiana, mayor were mostly white. Stories from The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Post and Courier of Charleston dutifully reported the lack of black turnout.
But none of those stories used the word “gay.” That, given the animus against homosexuality and same-sex marriage among many in the black community and its churches, is journalistic malpractice.
There have been plenty of stories about Buttigieg’s sexual orientation, and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg. Most have put some focus on whether voters will reject the Harvard University graduate because he is married to a man. But the stories have focused on the homophobia of white conservatives as a stumbling block for Buttigieg, which it isn’t. He has no shot at getting their votes in a general election, gay or not.
If Buttigieg’s gayness hurts him in this primary race or the general election, it will be with the black Democratic voters whose support he desperately needs, not white Republicans he could never woo.
About 12 percent of all voters, and 25 percent of Democratic primary voters, are black. As New York Times columnist Charles Blow pointed out in an April piece about Buttigieg’s chances with blacks (which never mentioned that he is gay), the majority of Democratic primary voters in 2016 in the early voting states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia were black.
According to a 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center, only 51 percent of black Americans supported same-sex marriage, while 64 percent of white voters do. But in the past two elections, about 90 percent of blacks voted Democrat, so having a big percentage of that population oppose Buttigieg’s lifestyle is potentially a problem. That could be particularly true, in a primary or general election, with black churchgoers, whose pastors have historically opposed homosexuality.
Will it be? Opinions vary.
“He will only have a problem with those black churches who have consumed the Kool-Aid of the white evangelicals,” the Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, said in an interview. Butts said black voters will judge Buttigieg on his policies and stances, not his sexuality, even though many oppose same-sex marriage. But Butts allowed that if Buttigieg tried to “push it down their throats, kiss and hold hands in front of cameras,” moves about which the candidate has been public, he could push away black voters. And in a field with more than 20 options, alienating any significant part of a large block of voters is deadly.
The Rev. William Owens, who heads the Coalition of African-American Pastors, a group that includes thousands of black clergy members who fight for laws supporting biblical values, says Buttigieg’s sexuality makes his candidacy a nonstarter for many churchgoing black Democrats.
“You might get a few newcomer black pastors who are trying to pacify white liberals by supporting gay marriage, but the bulk of us are highly opposed,” Owens said.
The campaign will show whether homosexuality is still enough of a taboo in the black community to cost Buttigieg. But pointing out potential homophobia among large blocks of Democratic voters appears to be a taboo in the journalism community. That journalistic finger-pointing is reserved for conservative voters.
And that’s not right.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.