Some white Americans may be surprised to hear that presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s poll numbers with African Americans hover around 0%. Black voters are certainly not surprised. Hundreds of years of American election experience have turned us into highly suspicious voters.
We started off supporting the Republican Party, the party of President Abraham Lincoln, but quickly learned that not every Republican was like Lincoln. In deference to the Great Emancipator, we gave lukewarm support to his successors, until Teddy Roosevelt came along. In a lot of ways, the first Roosevelt administration was the last straw where black collective support for the GOP was concerned. Not only was Roosevelt openly opposed to civil rights and suffrage for blacks, the one and only time he invited a black leader to the White House was to discuss ways to slow down black efforts for social equality.
So, when the 1912 election rolled around, we decided to give the Democrats a shot and supported Woodrow Wilson. Big mistake. Much to our surprise, despite all of his promises, Wilson turned out to be a legit racist. President Wilson encouraged legislation that discriminated against blacks, did everything he could to keep blacks from working for the federal government and, as soon as he was sure that the film footage was dry, arranged a viewing at the White House of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.”
After a few rounds of this sort of business, black voters got the point. We needed to be much more selective about our presidential choice. We did not get jazzed up again about a candidate until Franklin D. Roosevelt came along. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a lot like his uncle Teddy. For FDR, blacks were an afterthought. Though he didn’t actively work to undermine blacks, he certainly didn’t help us either. He didn’t push back too hard when he was urged not to extend the benefits of the GI Bill to black veterans during World War II, nor did he speak up when the Federal Housing Administration slighted black homebuyers to gain white congressional support.
Luckily, black Americans had an angel in the White House in the president’s wife Eleanor, who pushed for whatever gains blacks enjoyed during FDR’s term. Out of respect for Eleanor Roosevelt, we came together and supported Harry Truman in 1948. He believed in giving everyone a fair shake, and, since before the days of the American Revolution, that’s all we have ever really wanted — a fair shake. The Truman presidency ushered in a string of strong Democratic supporters of civil rights, and, for the most part, black voters felt relatively safe in the hands of the Dems.
And then President Bill Clinton came along. We love Bill, but he really put one over on us. If Buttigieg has any one president to thank for the lukewarm reception he is getting from black Democrats, it’s probably Clinton. His welfare policies and aggressive efforts to establish, grow and entrench the industry of incarceration in this country had disastrous consequences for black Americans that will persist for decades. So, when the smooth-talking, well-practiced Buttigieg showed up, our collective “spidey sense” started tingling.
Even after almost a year on the trail, it’s tough to ignore all the red flags. We have our doubts that a man, a white man of his youth and privilege, has the wisdom to relate to our problems. His public comments on race are surprisingly immature for someone who considers himself among senior-level politicians. We avoid his town halls to spare our cringes at his inevitable statement that his sexuality gives him unique insights into the challenges we face. We doubt that he has the disposition for the job after watching his disappointing performance at a town hall after the shooting of Eric Logan.
We have our doubts that he has the administrative chops necessary for the job. He is running on his record as a mayor, but the population of South Bend, Ind., is only twice that of the student population of the University of Maryland, College Park. The two are not equivalents.
Donald Trump was elected because too many Americans gave him the benefit of the doubt and believed he would mature on the job. Black voters learned our lesson about presidents long ago and that is why we hesitate to support Buttigieg.
K. Ward Cummings is the author of “Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers.” This piece was written for The Baltimore Sun.