By Areeba Shah
ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Before Antoine Brown performed at his first political event — a black art and culture celebration for the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg — he had only performed at local coffee shops and hookah lounges.
But now, he stood before a crowd of about 20 Buttigieg supporters at a black-owned business, surrounded by “African Americans for Pete” signs, after the group had just finished watching a video of the former South Bend mayor’s pitch to black voters, the Douglass Plan.
“We’re in a time right now that’s about making our dreams come true,” Brown said. “Y’all ready to get excited? So when I say I got dreams, I want y’all to say ‘Aye!’” The crowd joined in enthusiastically.
The Douglass Plan, named for abolitionist former slave Frederick Douglass, is designed to “dismantle racist structures and systems” that have kept African Americans from succeeding in this country by investing in what the plan calls “black America.”
The question for the small gathering at Thee Matriarch Bed & Breakfast remained whether Buttigieg, a 38-year-old politician who has never won state or national office, can win the votes he needs in the black community to make him a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination.
Polls show that the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is struggling to win African American support in a state where former Vice President Joe Biden has deep political ties. While black voters are expected to account for about 20% of the Democratic electorate nationwide, they are not a monolithic group.
With black voters expected to cast as many as two-thirds of Democratic votes on Feb. 29, the Buttigieg campaign is partnering with black-owned businesses across the state and holding events to garner more support.
Among South Carolina voters who are likely to participate in the upcoming primary, support for Buttigieg currently stands at 6%, with 13% of African Americans backing him, according to a Monmouth University poll released on Thursday.
He received an endorsement from South Carolina state Rep. J.A. Moore, who believes Buttigieg is the right candidate to beat President Trump — a priority many South Carolinians share.
“The reason I like Pete is because he is a thoughtful leader, a person who is open for constructive criticism,” Moore said. “For me, African American empowerment is extremely important and upward mobility in our community is important, but my decision wasn’t solely based on the fact that I’m an African American. My decision was based on the fact that I’m American before anything.”
He believes the Douglass Plan will successfully combat redlining and invest in hospitals in rural areas, making it easier for working class residents to get quality health care.
“I like the fact that he understands that there’s a need for it [the Douglass Plan] and it’s going to take a group of leaders in order to lead a black agenda, not only just one person,” Moore said.
In South Carolina, more than a quarter of the population remains at risk of dying sooner from a preventable death due to a lack of resources just because of where they live, according to MJH Life Sciences.
“All of it is going to take collaborative effort both from a federal and a state legislative perspective and also is going to take people in the community to really buy into on these policy proposals,” Moore said.
The plan also accounts for other issues that are meaningful to Moore, such as predatory lending and other systemic discriminatory practices.
The Douglass Plan
What differentiates Buttigieg from other candidates is his ability to arm the African American community with the tools to come up with their own solutions, said Tiffany James, South Carolina’s black engagement director at Pete for America.
“It’s not the solution to centuries of oppression, but it’s a step in the right direction,” she added.
The plan focuses on reforming the healthcare and criminal justice system, investing in historically black colleges and universities, and restoring voting rights. The goal is greater equity for African Americans who are business owners.
Buttigieg’s proposal also calls for investments in what he calls cultural preservation, which would provide funding to preserve and highlight black history in schools’ K-12 curriculum, James said.
“I think we, as Americans, have done a very poor job telling the story of black people,” she said. “Sometimes you hear about slavery. They’ll gloss over everything else.”
The idea, according to the Douglass Plan, is to establish a mechanism to fund researchers and scholars who will help reshape the story of African Americans’ contributions to the United States.
“Our history should be taught all over the world,” James said, “but we have to start here at home.”
His term as mayor in South Bend
Yet, there are skeptics. Igor Rodriguez, a member of Black Lives Matter from South Bend, Indiana, finds the plan too broad to address specific issues facing the African American community. Instead, it serves as a thin platform for political campaigning, he said.
“We have to be very careful about how we talk about the Douglass plan,” Rodriguez said, maintaining that it is more style than substance. He called it a “sham.” “There’s nothing in there that we could talk about being at the planning level, or that’s gone to the planning stage.”
The 18-page document, released in July 2019, touches on issues experts have focused on for decades, offering proposals on how to tackle health equity and justice, address issues of institutional racism and invest in more quality public education.
“There’s nothing there that suggests that he’s even the right person to do it,” Rodriguez added. “I mean, it’s frustrating to read the Douglass plan as a resident of South Bend and ask the questions ‘Well, why didn’t you do any of this stuff here?’”
Buttigieg has acknowledged struggling to address issues of racism and white supremacy in South Bend’s police department during his term as mayor. The department grew less diverse under his leadership as the number of African American officers from 2014 to 2019 decreased from 26 to 13, according to numbers released to CNN by the South Bend police department. Now, just over 5% of the South Bend police force is black, while 88% is white.
One in four South Bend residents identifies as African American, according to the 2010 census.
As Rodriguez sees it, the Douglass Plan only speaks to individuals who have college degrees or envision themselves as entrepreneurs. He said, “When I talk to folks in South Bend and other cities, not a lot of people are you know, looking for entrepreneurial opportunities as much as they are just like a job that has a living wage.”
The Douglass Plan culture, Arts & Hip Hop Celebration
The few artists in Orangeburg who attended the Douglass Plan Culture, Arts & Hip Hop Celebration feel differently. Ashley Jordan, who serves on the Art of Community — Rural SC, a program that advances South Carolina’s commitment to rural development through arts and culture, remains excited about Buttigieg’s approach.
“I’m new to the Douglass Plan, but I’m not new to the struggle of lacking Arts [and] African American culture being taught,” she said.
As a creative connector, she works on projects that focus on how arts and culture can address such local issues as healthcare, education, public safety and housing. The South Carolina she envisions might evolve from this plan, she added.
“I want to see beautiful art everywhere,” Jordan said. “I want to hear beautiful art everywhere. I mean, how do we live without music? How do we live without being able to just sit down, open up a sketchbook and draw something.”
Another artist, Terrence Washington, who grew up in Blackville, a town of about 2,200 people in Barnwell County, spoke of his support for the Douglass Plan, saying that it will expose people to art in small towns and the countryside.
“Americans need to know the full stories of black people,” he said.
It is something he’s already captured in his art pieces such as the one he painted of Barack and Michelle Obama — whose grandfather lived in Georgetown, South Carolina — right before the former president was about to give a speech. The outlines of their faces touching each other, represents an intimate moment the two shared.
He’s supporting Buttigieg because of his plans for highlighting and promoting African American artists.
“Pete says something that made me connect,” he said. “Other people are not saying anything. They’re tap dancing around questions. And with Pete, when he starts talking about helping people in art, it didn’t seem the same as what other people were saying so that’s what caught my attention.”
Struggles to win the African American vote
Even as Buttigieg tries to win support from non-white voters, something he’s struggled with in the past, most of his plans are too ambitious, said Marvin King, associate professor of political science and African American studies at University of Mississippi.
With the way Congress is constituted, most candidates’ plans are going to be watered down. Criminal justice reform is one of the few areas where Republicans and Democrats are willing to work together, he said.
“So, purely from electoral strategy, it should be about vision,” King said. “People who recognize that are voting on vision. A lot of people may not recognize that, and then those are the people that get disappointed.”
One of Buttigieg’s strategies relies on positioning himself as a centrist, appealing to independent voters, but the framing of the Douglass Plan relies largely on appealing to black primary voters and not to the general electorate, said King, who believes such terms as “environmental justice” and “health equity” could alienate independents reluctant to pay higher taxes for programs that would benefit others.
“My guess is, if he were to get the nomination, you’re not going to hear much about the Douglass Plan,” King said. “You hear about the Douglass Plan when he’s campaigning to a black audience in an urban area, but when he’s out in the suburbs, if he’s in flyover country, who’s Fredrick Douglass?”
Instead, changing the framing from “health equity” to “insurance reform” might convince more people to jump on board, he said. “If he gets hammered in South Carolina, then, you know, I really don’t see that he would continue to promote this plan all that much,” King said. “Because if it can’t win in South Carolina, it’s essentially the same electorate in the rest of the deep south.”
What his plan means to others
Yvette McDaniel, who serves as a community connector to the Art of Community — Rural SC, believes Organeburg needs the Douglass Plan because without it, people will lose their ability to express themselves and think critically.
“We’ve got to support,” McDaniel said. “We have to have solidarity, because we have to have social justice.”
The Pete for America campaign in Orangeburg is working on supporting black businesses by partnering with them across the state, with more than 55 events under their belts, according to Lauren Brown, the South Carolina communications director for Buttigieg’s campaign.
“I think having the Douglass plan really shows how serious he is about not just winning over black voters, but saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a plan that will fundamentally change your life,’” Brown said.
If Buttigieg can deliver ways to end systemic racism in this country, she added, people will begin to see tangible change in their daily lives. Her favorite part is Buttigieg’s goal of tripling the number of black business owners in 10 years.
During his time as mayor though, he decreased funding to African-American owned businesses, according to South Bend councilman Henry Davis Jr.
In 2015, the only year in which the city posted a budget report online under Mayor Buttigieg’s tenure, showed they spent $0 on African American owned business, when city purchasing was over $90 million.
“He couldn’t do it in South Bend,” Davis said. “Now, he’s on the national stage and he has all these great ideas.”
The Douglass Plan serves as a selling point for Buttigieg, he added. In his experience, the former mayor’s track record speaks louder than the promises he’s making now.
“If he’s interested in helping the African Americans, then he would’ve done it under his two terms as mayor, but he continued the culture in South Bend where black people weren’t good enough to get contracts from the city,” he said.
Antoine Brown, who hadn’t previously heard of Pete Buttigieg before attending the black artist’s and culture celebration in Orangeburg, was sold.
Today, he will be casting his vote for the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.