South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg conceded on Sunday that he had long believed that his city’s schools were integrated, only to later find that his assumption was false.
“I have to confess that I was slow to realize ― I worked for years under the illusion that our schools in my city were integrated because they had to be because of a court order,” the Democratic presidential candidate said at a North Carolina talk with the Poor People’s Campaign. The group was started by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a call to action against poverty shortly before his 1968 assassination.
Buttigieg added that while there was integration “within the limits of the South Bend community school district ... if you looked at the county, almost all of the diversity of our youths was in a single school district.”
Indiana law specifies that school districts are independent of cities and mayors’ offices. South Bend schools are governed by the South Bend Community School Corporation, which has a board of publicly elected members.
Though the school system was officially desegregated in 1981 by way of a legal agreement reached in federal court, some of its most integrated schools were permanently shuttered, and students were bused to other locations.
Under the agreement, schools are required to enroll Black students at a percentage within 15 points of the overall percentage of Black students in the district.
However, for years, not all schools complied. In 2017, an Indiana University study showed that residential patterns remain an obstacle to integration and that “interactions between White and non-White students in Indiana remain low.”
A spokesperson for Buttigieg’s campaign told HuffPost on Monday that “it’s not just about making sure schools within a district are diverse but about examining how school districts are drawn.”
To remedy the issue, the candidate has proposed a federal pre-clearance policy for any proposed changes to district boundaries to ensure they don’t “further concentrate white students or minority students in separate school districts,” the spokesperson said.
Buttigieg’s remarks come as he struggles to gain Black supporters. His campaign has resonated far more with white supporters in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Though the openly gay 37-year-old mayor said last month that his orientation allows him to relate to the struggle of Black Americans, the claim spurred backlash, including from one of Buttigieg’s 2020 challengers, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who told CNN his remark was unproductive and “a bit naive.”
Rev. William J. Barber II, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, where Buttigieg spoke, dismissed the rift as a “false narrative,” telling the crowd to “stop putting that on Black folk.”
“There’s some phobia among all folks,” he added.
Last week, The Root’s Michael Harriot penned a viral op-ed billing Buttigieg as “a lying motherfucker” for stating eight years ago that lower educational achievement within impoverished minority communities boils down to a lack of role models.
The wider reasons, Harriot contended, are inequities in funding, student debt, employment offers and wages.
Buttigieg later recanted his comments, pointing out that he had made them prior to his mayoral election and that they don’t “reflect the totality of my understanding,” Politico reported.
This article has been updated with a response from Buttigieg’s campaign and additional details on South Bend schools.