In the midst of impeachment hearings, gun violence, tariff wars, arguments on health care, and questions about the safety of our elections, two men sat down in wooden chairs on either side of a small table and had a conversation.
That isn’t news in itself. But it becomes news when the two men are Michael Harriot and Pete Buttigieg, and the subject is race relations in the United States in the year 2019.
You’ll remember Harriot is the writer from the website TheRoot, who in a particularly tough piece last week entitled, “Pete Buttigieg is a Lying MF,” excoriated Buttigieg over comments he made while running for Mayor back in 2011 during a videotaped debate. The subject was a lack of success by kids from lower income and minority neighborhoods. In the video, Pete argued that those children may not do as well in school as others because they lack the necessary role models.
Harriot sternly called out the Mayor in his post:
“Majority-minority schools receive $23 billion less in funding than majority-white schools, according to a recent study by EdBuild. Black students in Indiana, the state where Buttigieg serves as mayor, and across the country, are disciplined more harshly than white students. But even though Buttigieg has never attended a school with more than 10 percent black students, he thinks he knows what’s stopping black kids from achieving their educational dreams.”
This kind of thing certainly isn’t uncommon: an attack on a campaigning politician by an American political writer. It is, after all, the heated period of time we like to call “Primary Season.” And in most cases like this, it would have ended there. But this story was about to have its first twist.
The day after the article went up, Pete Buttigieg called Michael Harriot personally to talk to him about what he’d written. In a second piece posted later that day, Harriot summed up the phone call between the two:
Pete Buttigieg didn’t want to tell me his side of the story. He didn’t excuse himself by explaining that the comments referenced by the article were made years ago. He didn’t even try to explain his plan for black America.
“I think the context was important, especially the fact that it was before I took office,” Buttigieg said.
But mostly, he just wanted to listen.
For 18 minutes and 45 seconds, we talked about educational inequality, poverty and institutional racism in America and how to fix it.
After that, a second twist when TheRoot yesterday released a video of Harriot and Buttigieg sitting down together to talk further about inequality, poverty, racism, as well as homophobia, and the best paths for overcoming them.
Of course, as this face-to-face discussion offers – if not closure – then at least new insight for both men, it’s not particularly heated. Because of that, it won’t get as much play as Harriot’s original article did in the media. And I think that’s a shame for several reasons.
For myself, I had never heard of Harriot two weeks ago. And after reading his unflattering piece on my candidate, a candidate I have been steadfastly supporting non-stop for nearly ten months, I decided I didn’t like him very much. I invented my own set of excuses to discount the points he was making, and wrote him off as a guy trolling for clicks and using Pete to do it. After watching Harriot and Mayor Pete speaking together, I now look at Harriot in the fair-minded light I should have been using from the start. I was given the chance to listen to him express his opinions, and I paid attention. Because Pete had taken this brave step of reaching out, and I support Pete, I was able to make a brave step myself by admitting my judgment of Harriot was closed-minded, uninformed and inescapably stupid.
There’s something else important here. Pete Buttigieg called up a harsh critic and asked for an opportunity to talk, believing it might lead to some understanding between two differing approaches to improving relations between white people and black people. His campaign often refers to this style of Pete’s as “changing the channel.” It’s the kind of thing a good leader knows – or at least, should know – is expected of them.
We sure haven’t seen much of that lately.
Most of us would be hard-pressed to imagine the current leader of the free world, Donald J. Trump, asking to sit down for a constructive conversation with people of color who disagree with him… say, The Central Park Five, or Barack Obama, or Don Lemon, or Maxine Waters, or Colin Kaepernick, or the four Congresswomen who should “go back” where they came from, or the millions and millions of people of color who live in of all those “shit hole countries” our current president just doesn’t seem to like very much.
It’s true both Pete Buttigieg and Michael Harriot may achieve secondary objectives from this meeting. No doubt Pete saw an opportunity to communicate to a large number of potential voters, both black and white, whose attention Harriot had captured, in a long form conversation on a topic of deep concern to them. Likewise, Harriot will be introduced to many who hadn’t heard of him before or had never read any of his writing. It’s a professional win for both men.
But don’t let that take anything away from what happened here. Watching this twenty minute video, it’s clear that these men acknowledge the serious and deeply-rooted racial inequities in this country, from education dollars to housing to entrepreneurship and criminal justice. Both Michael Harriot and Pete Buttigieg have clearly done the work, and can argue their points cogently and with mutual respect.
To put it simply, they set a good example for adults everywhere.
It’s been quite a week for Pete Buttigieg. In addition to this brilliantly-managed experience, he also was able to both insist on honoring his non-disclosure agreement with former employer, McKinsey & Company, and simultaneously persuade them to release him from it. This provides more transparency about Pete’s past work at the firm, recently brought into question.
Big challenges have been coming Pete Buttigieg’s way this week. He’s not even been elected yet, and he’s already proving that he’s willing and able to face those challenges, and that he can deliver results.