New Orleans – Pete Buttigieg, South Bend, Indiana Mayor and 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate, gave a speech at the ESSENCE Festival, today. What follows are the full transcripts of the speech and of the interview with Reverend Al Sharpton.
Thank you and good morning. Good morning. There we go, good morning ESSENCE Fest. It is so good to be with you.
As a mayor, I am particularly pleased that we are gathering at a center named after a trailblazing mayor, Ernest Morial, the father of another great mayor, Marc Morial, in a city that also brought us Mayor Landrieu who was the ringleader of the U.S. mayors for a time, and is now led by the very first Black woman mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell. It is the season for mayors, and you have produced some amazing ones.
I want to thank Reverend Sharpton for your kind introduction, for your leadership and for your insights whenever I reach out.
And I want to thank and express my admiration for Michelle Ebanks, Richelieu Dennis, and the entire ESSENCE team. Acquiring ESSENCE, restoring its black ownership has been a tremendous contribution and we all admire you a great deal.
My name is Pete Buttigieg, people back home have trouble saying my last name too so they just call me Mayor Pete. You can call me whatever you like. I want to take a few minutes to introduce myself, tell you what I believe, and why I’m running for president.
I also want to let you that I stand here aware that Black women are not just the backbone of the Democratic Party, but the bone and sinew that is making our democracy whole. We have seen time and time again, especially in the last couple elections, that when Black women mobilize, outcomes change. And we need some new outcomes at a time like this.
Now, we need Black women to rise up more than ever because we are living, I am convinced, in a moment that will decide not only what the next three or fours years are like in American life, but the next thirty or forty. And a great deal is going to depend on whether we can tackle racial inequality in my lifetime.
I say this as a mayor from a diverse city in the industrial Midwest. And I can tell you one story about how our city came back from the brink, not because I went around saying we were going to “Make South Bend Great Again,” not by trying to turn the clock back to a past that was never that great anyway for a lot of us, but by focusing on the future.
But I can also tell you about a story in which Black residents of our own hometown have been excluded from the recovery of our city and of our country by the consequences of systemic racism.
I’m running for president as a young American mayor in part because I believe the toughest issues we face locally are also the toughest issues we face nationally — segregated neighborhoods, unequal schools, mass incarceration, economic exclusion. And we need national leadership that cares about cities and understands what we face.
We have seen the consequences of systemic racism that must be defeated in my lifetime in order for America to succeed.
We know what we’re up against in the criminal justice system, in concerns brought home to my community three weeks ago when we experienced the police shooting of a Black man, Eric Logan. And I have challenged our own police department to recognize all of the ways the uniform has been burdened by racism. But it goes beyond that.
Our entire healthcare system is burdened by racism, when Black women are dying from maternal complications at three times the rate of white women. Your race should have absolutely no bearing on your life expectancy in this country.
Our housing is burdened by racism, with neighborhoods segregated not by accident, but by federal policies enacted within living memory. Race should never, ever, be an obstacle to living in any neighborhood that you choose.
Our education system is burdened by racism. Not just a distant history leading up to Brown v. Board but a reality that even today — so many years after Ruby Bridges bravely walked through jeering crowds a few miles from here — even now, we face tremendous segregation and outcomes divided by race.
And on all of these issues, Black women have been at the tip of the spear, experiencing the consequences to our nation’s shortcomings but also putting forward solutions to deal with them.
There’s been too much talk about Black problems in this country and not nearly enough about Black solutions — of which women are at the forefront. It’s why as president I will not only be addressing and listening to Black women, but appointing them as we have done in South Bend. And we see the consequences of that, positive ones.
When we brought in the first African American female corporation counsel to run our Department of Law, she went to become our county’s first African American female magistrate judge. And, she built a diverse law department that made it easy to find a successor, also black, who is now going on to be our county, in Indiana, our county’s first head of the Bar Association who is a black woman. Empowerment leads to greater empowerment.
So the policies that got us here were intentional, and so we are going to have to be intentional in reversing them. It’s why I believe we need to invest in the future of Black America with a Douglass Plan that is as ambitious as the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. If America could invest in other countries, we are going to have to invest in our own, in our time, and it starts now.
Now I want to talk very briefly about the values that animate our campaign and that must be experienced for all of us, because I am tired of values like freedom being talked about like they are the property of the Republican Party.
Republicans talk a lot about freedom. But I believe you are not free if you do not have access to healthcare — healthcare is freedom too. And by the way, you are not free if your reproductive healthcare decisions are being dictated by male politicians. And it is twice as important for men to be speaking up about that.
You’re not free if you’re trapped in a broken justice system. Which is why I insist that we can and must achieve a 50 percent reduction in incarceration, without an increase in crime our time. And knowing that Black women are too often left to hold their families together and facing incarceration on the rise for them — we know that this is a matter not only of racial justice but of gender justice as well.
We also know that Freedom comes by way of access to education, which is why one of the first things I am going to do is appoint a Secretary of Education who actually believes in public education in this country.
We’ve got so much work to do expanding educational opportunity. It’s why we’re going to make public college tuition-free for low-income students. It’s why we’re going to increase investments in HBCUs, so that we can support the next Katherine Johnson in STEM and other fields.
While we’re on the subject of education, let’s acknowledge some good news that just came about thanks to the activism of people like Adjoa B. Asamoah and Senator Holly Mitchell, who led efforts to pass the CROWN Act in California that says you can’t be discriminated against because of your hairstyle. This is about freedom too. You’re not free if you can be kicked out of school or lose your job cause somebody says your hair is a “distraction.” Hair discrimination is racial discrimination, and we ought to recognize that at the national level too.
And let’s talk about economic empowerment. You know, women of color account for nearly half of all women-owned businesses—$386 billion of annual revenue—which means that we should continue lifting up women of color and black owned enterprises not just with our words, but with our dollars.
It’s why I believe we should put forward an initiative named after Madam CJ Walker and Reginald Lewis, a Walker-Lewis Initiative that would triple the number of entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds within 10 years. We can do that, and we should.
We’ll have a Debt-for-Jobs Plan, so that every debt Pell-eligible student will have their college loans forgiven if they employ at least three people within five years of leaving school. And we will have an entrepreneurship fund to co-invest $10 billion in underrepresented entrepreneurs, creating opportunity for more Americans.
This is what freedom looks like in the 21st Century. We’re not going to leave it to one party to talk about it anymore than we’re going to leave national security to one party to talk about. Because when I got off that plane that C-17 in Afghanistan, while this President was working on season 7 of Celebrity Apprentice, I’m pretty sure the flag on my shoulder was not a Republican flag, it was an American flag. So we’re not going to give up on national security as an issue, especially knowing that in our time national security isn’t the sort of thing you can deal with by putting up a wall. We are not safe until we have confronted and ended the threat of violent white nationalism in our time. Nor are we safe, New Orleans, if we have failed to recognize that climate disruption is a national security issue.
So we’re going to recognize that freedom doesn’t belong to one political party, security doesn’t belong to one political party, and one more thing, God doesn’t belong to a political party–least of all one that sows division in our land and pits people against one another and holds those most in need down. That is not in keeping with any faith tradition, certainly not the one I belong to.
Now lastly, and I want to be brief here, but it’s so important, we talk about democracy, because we are not a democracy so long as racial and partisan gerrymandering allow politicians to pick their voters rather than the other way around. We’ve got to change that. We’ve got to change disenfranchisement. And in the world’s greatest democracy, I propose that we begin choosing our president by just counting up everybody’s vote–and I mean everybody’s vote–and giving it to the person who got the most.
I know this is a challenging and bleak moment, but running for office is an act of hope. Scripture tells us that `“faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
We do not see justice and equality in our time. But we have assurance that we can bring it about—if we make common cause politically. If we change the channel from that horror show that’s going on in Washington. And, yes, if Black women are empowered to bring the essence of your experience to the highest levels of American politics.
That is how we bring about American greatness, true American greatness–found in the everyday. Not in a tank rolling down the streets of Washington to make the president feel like a bigger man. But the greatness that is in the soul of a women on the West Side of South Bend who oversees her neighborhoods in a way that every teenager and every mayor knows to respect. That’s how we get American greatness. We build that up. We see greatness in the activists in our community who challenge their mayor—bluntly sometimes—to make sure that we live up to a knowledge that every facet of life in our city is different right now for different people, and commit to do something about it.
We have assurance about what we can not yet see—if we do the work. That’s why I’m running. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.
Full interview transcript below:
Reverend Al Sharpton: Mayor Pete Buttigieg, give him a hand! (applause) You gave us a little scripture there. You preached a little bit. Let me ask you a couple of questions before we go to our panel. There has been in the Democratic race for the last couple of weeks the controversy with Joe Biden, former vice president, about his statements about working with segregationist and racists, and many of us were offended by the language and the reference. And yesterday he apologized, something that many of us said in the beginning, we’ve all heard in our public life. How did you react and respond to his apology?
Pete Buttigieg: Well I think it was a step forward. You know, when you’re responsible for something, you’ve got to own it. It’s a quality that I think we should expect in our presidents. Obviously we don’t have it in this president. But as we’ve faced our own challenges with racial equity in our city, a number of areas where I’m proud of what we’ve done, a number of areas where we have fallen short, you’ve got to own up to that. And it’s important to accept responsibility for what needs to change. And I hope now the conversation can be a forward looking one about racial equity in our time, because every candidate—and frankly especially white candidates—need to find their voices on this issue.
Reverend Al Sharpton: Now you had said to me privately, when you called after the police killing of Mr. Logan, and you said publicly at the debate, that there were areas you fell short, that you didn’t get things done with diversity in the police department in South Bend and things like the camera not being on, how that has to be dealt with more—the body camera, police. What have you learned in the process that as you have said, taken responsibility, now what? What is the next step to show that once you’ve come to terms with your responsibility, where we go forward?
Pete Buttigieg: So the biggest thing we’re finding is how important it is to empower community members to have a voice in the way policing happens in our city. And I think that’s going to be important for law enforcement to be able to do their job as well as for communities of color to feel safe and to feel that they are enjoying equal protection. So part of what we’re doing is we’re making sure that we have a full review of everything from use of force policies with a lot of transparency to the way these body cameras work and whether there might be a change in that. Things like recruiting—we have undertaken efforts year after year to recruit more diverse applicants to the department, but we don’t have the results to show for it. We’ve got to own that. We’ve got to face it. It’s not just a South Bend problem, but I’m responsible for South Bend getting it right. The other thing we’ve learned is that there is a nation full of people wrestling with these issues—cities, mayors, activists, leaders. And we are opening up our data, opening up our policies for national experts to weigh in and say, “you know, when I look, for example, at your use of force police some cities have the policy written differently and they have less police shootings.” We’ve been working on this for years, but we’ve got to take it to a new level. And my hope is that, even if it’s happening the hard way, that this will elevate the conversation about something that people in every part of the country are feeling, because that future that I’m trying to create—that year 2055 I like talking about when I get to the current age of the current president, we’ll be looking back in these years asking what this generation did to fix things—I want by then for us to be able to say without hesitation that the experience of a black or a white driver, for example, when they encounter a police officer, is exactly the same. And that what they feel is not a sensation of fear, but one of safety. And we’ve got our work cut out for us to make that happen.
Reverend Al Sharpton: As we go to the panel, the last thing I want to bring up is that I took you to Sylvia’s Soul Food Restaurant in Harlem. And one of the reasons I wanted to was to openly deal the fact that we have to deal with the remnants of homophobia still in our community, and in this nation. You have said from day one you’re openly gay and married. And I’ve said whether people agree with your life or not, they have to judge you on the merits of your service, just like we want to be judged on the merits of ours. And as you are here at ESSENCE Festival, this festival has always been one to openly welcome all of our community, whether they are women, men, gay, LGBTQ, transgender, because there’s all one family. And I thought it was very important that you be here so people would understand that those that are still homophobic in our community do not speak for the majority of our community, even the faith community. We can understand wherever we fight for civil rights for anybody, we fight for it for everybody.
Pete Buttigieg: Thank you.
Reverend Al Sharpton: Have you had to deal with any homophobia during your campaign?
Pete Buttigieg: Yes, of course. There’s some ugliness out there. But the most important thing for me is to make sure that, because I know something about one kind of exclusion, it’s not the same—I don’t know anything about what it’s like personally to be a trans woman of color, for example, or what it is to be a woman in the workplace or what it is to drive while black. That’s not my experience. But because I know a little bit about exclusion, I also have, I think, something I can tap into to motivate me to look after others. My marriage exists— The most important thing in my life, my marriage, something that has moved me closer to god, exists by the grace of a single vote on the US Supreme Court. And I know that that is there because people fought for me. It’s one of the things that motivates me to fight twice as hard for women’s reproductive rights knowing that I am not a woman, that motivates me to find a voice to have the conversations that white America needs to have with itself on the issue of race because I am not a person of color, because I know so many people were there for me before I was even born and all through my life.
Michelle Ebanks: How will you be held accountable to black women with your agenda?
Pete Buttigieg: So, step one is transparency, I believe, because what we know about things like women and black women, in particular, being underpaid is there is a lot of accountability when that comes to the light. So I am proposing that employers be required to publish gender pay gaps that are going on in their organizations, and I think that will provide a powerful motivator for people to do that job right. I expect to be held accountable for whether my administration models the diversity that all of the candidates are talking about right now. We’re seeking to do it in our campaign—we’re very proud of the campaign team we’re building—in the city administration that we build, even facing the fact that in areas like law enforcement recruiting, we’ve still got a ways to go. And I expect to be held accountable for how diverse our administration’s top appointments are because personnel is policy, and things change very quickly when you have different kinds of people in charge. But also, this is, I think we need to make sure the conversation doesn’t go down the false road of making it sound like this is about doing people a favor. This is number one, about equality, and number two, this pays back to the entire country. The wealth that is being created, for example, through the leadership of women entrepreneurs, the wealth that is being brought to New Orleans right now by what you are doing, is an example of how that empowerment makes everybody better off. And we have got to recognize that and invest in that. See, it turned out it was not true that a rising tide lifts all boats. We’ve been told that, and the experience across my entire lifetime is it doesn’t work that way. Because we’ve seen the rising tide rise, and we’ve seen, in so many of the outcomes that you mentioned, from racial disparities in health outcomes to life expectancy, to income, to the wealth gap that we are wrestling with, that it is not true. And in particular, women have been excluded, Black Americans have been excluded, and of course Black women have carried that burden doubly. So it is not true that the rising tide lifts all boats, but what is true is that when you untie some of those boats that have been roped down to the ocean floor, everybody is better off—even those who are not part of that pattern of exclusion. And so I think it’s imperative for our country to advance that we actually make good on this, and I invite people to look in more detail than we can probably do today at the elements of our Douglass Plan, which covers not just criminal justice reform—which is so important—but homeownership, health, education, and entrepreneurship. Because we cannot talk as if the Black experience can be reduced to criminal justice when there are so many other things that are happening that are so important too. And all of it rests on the foundation of an expanded access to democracy—making sure that everybody can actually vote and that those votes are counted. And that’s why we are leading with that issue.
Michelle Ebanks: Thank you mayor.
Richelieu Dennis: Good morning mayor. You know, economics is the single most transformative idea that we can bring to our community, because with that idea we can bring the freedom to do the things that we deserve to be able to do. Homeownership, automobile ownership, education, vacations, coming to festivals, doing all the things that enrich our lives, but also the basics that take care of our children and our families. How do you start to lay the foundations through your policies and through your actions that encourage entrepreneurship beyond the rhetoric? Because we hear it a lot, right? And there’s these plans, we’re going to invest this, we’re going to do that, we’re going to do that. But what are going to be the things that you are going to do that are going to systemically remove those barriers that inhibit entrepreneurship in our communities?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, one of the biggest things we know is an issue is access to capital. And we have got to reform a credit system that restricts access to capital for so many would-be entrepreneurs without actually doing a good job of assessing how credit worthy they are. So we know that scoring needs to change, we know the administration of these algorithms needs to change—and by the way, one of the big issues we’ve got to face as technology grows in our lives is to make sure technology doesn’t wind up automating the biases that have already been in people’s minds, because an equation can discriminate just as much as a loan officer can, and we have got to write the right equations. So that’s a big piece of it. A big piece of it is making sure people have the freedom to take a risk. Part of the experience of being excluded is, you need a certain level of security to go off and start that small business. This is why healthcare is so important. If you are afraid to start a small business because you can’t leave your old job, even though it doesn’t pay enough, because you are clinging to those health benefits, then that diminishes your opportunity to go create opportunities for yourself and others. It’s why we need universal healthcare in this country. And when it comes specifically to wealth building in the black community, it is why I also believe, just from the perspective of access to capital, that we do need to have this conversation about reparations. Even while not everybody understands where it’s going to lead, we at least need to have HR40 set up that commission. And from an entrepreneurship perspective, the most important thing I think the debate misses is this: There’s this talk, well we’re talking about long ago, far off sins from a different generation, we should, you know, those are in the past. But if you think about, as anybody who has started a business, or anybody who has ever borrowed a dollar knows, you think about how interest and the value of money compounds, right? You have a dollar today, next year it’s a dollar and 5 cents, pretty soon it’s two dollars, after a hundred years it’s a hundred dollars. Well that’s true of a dollar invested, that’s also true of a dollar stolen. Which means the fact that some of this generational theft of wealth happened a long time ago doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. And so I don’t claim to have fully figured out how we redress that, but what I know is that this conversation needs to be brought forward, that HR40 should be passed and I will sign it, and that that has got to be part of the equation on how we build the wealth that makes it possible for entrepreneurs to step forward. And again, when they do, they create opportunities not just for those who are historically excluded, but for all of us and we are all better off.
Richelieu Dennis: And why is it, in your opinion, why do you think that we haven’t had more movement on this issue? Why do you think that as a party, the Democratic party hasn’t done more to lead this into fruition?
Pete Buttigieg: I think it is because we have been under the spell of the idea of color blindness, which may have felt very progressive relative to what came before, but I think we have been under the spell of this idea that if you have a racist policy and you get rid of it and replace it with a neutral policy, everything else will kind of take care of itself. And it doesn’t work that way. That’s what we’ve learned. We have learned that unless you act proactively, intentionally, to reverse harms that were also created intentionally, it’s just not going to be enough because these harms compound themselves. And I think, but, the other thing that’s happening that will help us shift is that we have now the most diverse generation in the history of our party, in the history of our country, and the next one is going to be even more diverse. So an answer that doesn’t work is no longer going to be considered good enough. The other thing that I think has held us back is that even now, this is being talked about like a Black issue. And I think it was James Baldwin who said that until White America comes to terms with itself, there will never be resolution to the treatment of Black people in this country. So now is the time for us as a party to recognize that all of us are diminished, all of us are made worse off, so long as some of us are being systematically oppressed and excluded. And we shouldn’t have any illusions about the fact that this is not only a legacy from 400 years ago, this is the consequence of things going on right now as we speak.
Richelieu Dennis: So as we all know, change doesn’t happen in one place, by one person, by one party. We are going to ask that you, the other candidates, the Democratic party, starts to really focus in on these economic issues, because these economic issues will determine the fate of our community fifty years from now, a hundred years from now. But it is also not just us asking and demanding that you and your compatriots and the Democratic party do this, but also, what advice would you give us in the audience as to how we can participate and help to drive some of this?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, the biggest thing is to recognize, I hope you can tell by the parade of candidates seeking to get on your good side right now, the power that is represented in this room. So to put it really simply, it’s, use your power. We have seen elections change, outcomes change, I would argue that what happened in the United States House of Representatives finally getting back into Democratic hands happened because of voters, activists, and in particular women of color, rising up. And so the power is already there. It has anybody who wishes to seek office wanting to engage. Now my hope is that you will have candidates who don’t only want to win, but want to make sure we deserve to win. But that dialogue, that conversation, and above all that movement into the polls, is what is going to bring about change. And we’ll know we are doing well when this is not a partisan issue. When you hear Republicans talking about this just as energetically as Democrats are. And if you want to see that happen, no better way to reunite them with their conscience than for there to be a severe consequence in November 2020 for them at every level for failing to address these issues.
Reverend Al Sharpton: Mayor Pete Buttigieg! Mayor Pete.