Pete Buttigieg has a message for white liberals who decry racism: "Good intentions are not going to be enough."
The Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, mayor is combating perceptions that he's out of touch with black people and will struggle to win their votes. On Thursday, he unveiled his most detailed proposals yet, which he says are aimed at addressing the systemic racism that affects the black community. And he's pairing that with candid talk aimed at white Democrats.
"White Democratic voters want to do the right thing but maybe haven't fully thought about what that means or what that requires of us," Buttigieg said in an Associated Press interview. "The reality is America as a whole is worse off when these inequities exist."
Buttigieg, 37, was virtually unknown in national politics when he launched his campaign but has gained ground with a compelling narrative as a young, gay military veteran offering generational change in the White House. He raised $24.8 million during the second quarter, a stunning sum that topped other leading Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But his rise has coincided with questions about his handling of race in South Bend. He was criticized for firing the city's first black police chief early in his career and has admitted he hasn't done enough to improve the lives of black residents .
Buttigieg left the campaign trail last month after a white police officer fatally shot a black man the officer said was armed with a knife. Some South Bend residents criticized him for being more focused on his presidential prospects than developments back home.
Under scrutiny, Buttigieg has been aggressive in directly tackling racism on the campaign trail. In Iowa last week, he shot down a question from a white man who suggested the best way to address crime in his hometown is to "tell the black people of South Bend to stop committing crime and doing drugs."
Buttigieg responded that "racism is not going to get us out of this problem."
"The fact that a black person is four times as likely as a white person to be incarcerated for the exact same crime is evidence of systemic racism," he said. "With all due respect, sir, racism makes it harder for good police officers to do their job, too. It's a smear on law enforcement."
In the AP interview, Buttigieg said he's in a unique position to talk about race.
"As the urban mayor who, for better or worse, may be the white candidate called on most often to discuss matters of race in this campaign, I want to make sure that every kind of audience is very clear on where I stand and, most importantly, what it is we can actually do," he said.
The mayor has dubbed the proposals the Douglass Plan . It's named for black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and modeled after the Marshall Plan, which helped Europe recover after World War II.
The plan addresses disparities in health, education, wealth, criminal justice and voting rights. Buttigieg says it's a "complement" to the push by Democrats in Congress to study reparations to determine how to compensate the descendants of slaves.
"This is my entry, as specifically as possible, about what we can do across all these different areas of American life where the black experience is very much like living in a different country," he said.
He said he will promote the plan before both black and white audiences in early primary states, but it's unclear whether that will be enough to resonate with black voters. One measure of his commitment will be how he spends the nearly $25 million he raised in recent months, including whether he'll staff up in South Carolina, which holds the first primary where black voters are crucial.
Buttigieg has sought to build connections with black voters and recently appeared with the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and at the Essence Fest in New Orleans.
Sharpton, who has criticized homophobia, has said Buttigieg could face skepticism from older black Americans uncomfortable with the idea of a gay president. Buttigieg said the most important thing is for voters to get to know him as a person, but he acknowledged the challenges posed by his historic candidacy.
"Many of the older generation activists that I've worked with in many ways are more patient on some of those institutional questions but have less comfort with the form of diversity that I represent," he said. "It's just a reminder that people are different, and you've got to meet them where they are. But at the end of the day, what I learned at home politically is the most important thing on a voter's mind is how is your election going to impact their lives."
Whack is The Associated Press' national writer on race and ethnicity. Follow her work on Twitter.