Who we have not seen in South Bend
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, October 1, 2020
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” — Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”
Recently Notre Dame students struck from class to learn about systemic racism in our community. Systemic racism in South Bend is hard to see. Here is a recent example.
In this summer’s “Notre Dame Magazine,” there was a feature story with these phrases “longtime political opponents” and “squeaky wheels.”
These referred to South Bend citizens who spoke up to journalists when former mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigned for a presidential nomination. The mayor’s tumultuous relationship with African Americans, in a city where more than one out of four citizens is Black, was a major topic of these reporters’ publications.
This is a brief list of local African American leaders who raised their voices: the former fire chief, the president of the fire personnel union, three lawmakers elected to the city council. Many community activists, including leaders of local racial justice groups like the NAACP, BlackTavists and Nu Black Power. Local University faculty. Family of victims of beatings and shootings by police. And the local chapter of Black Lives Matter publicly called for Buttigieg’s resignation in a detailed letter.
So why did the author of this feature story, Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s campaign chief and a former city executive, resort to mischaracterization and insult about those who spoke up? And why would Notre Dame publish this?
Perhaps these Black experiences are invisible. Thus they are easier to marginalize.
Here are four conditions that should be seen in order to better see the perspectives raised in South Bend.
1. City leadership
In his first year, Buttigieg removed three senior Black administrators — an assistant mayor, the police chief and the fire chief — leaving “no African American leaders in a city where more than a quarter of the residents are Black,” as the Associated Press reported in 2020. Yet citizens were not informed. The circumstances of the police chief’s demotion were locked in a long legal battle, and the fire chief’s ouster was portrayed as a “retirement.”
This problem of representation in leadership was shielded from public view. Local residents were told by Buttigieg in late 2012, after these obscured removals, that “the suggestion that my administration isn’t committed to diversity is outrageous.” No data on the demographics of mayor-appointed city leadership were given in a 2016 administration report on diversity and inclusion.
This problem of little diversity in leadership did not much improve with time. Former South Bend mayor Roger Parent wrote in 2019, Buttigieg’s last year in office, “there’s only one African American department director who doubles as the city’s only woman department director.” Parent, mayor in the 1970’s and 1980’s, found that diversity fell during the Buttigieg administration below levels of representation established decades ago. Only in late 2019 and early 2020, when Parent, the AP and several Black journalists reported these problems did South Bend citizens see who administered the city.
2. City employment
Diversity fell in the South Bend Police Department. In Buttigieg’s first term, roughly half of South Bend’s African American police officers filed letters or lawsuits alleging racial discrimination. Uncovered by The Root years later in 2020, this group of Black officers could not get a meeting with Buttigieg. During this period, South Bend recorded a decline of 14 full-time Black staff in the SBPD.
The Buttigieg administration obscured these and other drops in Black representation in city employment, even preventing local media from photographing and interviewing police. It refused in 2016 to answer direct questions from the South Bend Tribune about the diversity of police and fire staff. A local TV journalist requesting diversity statistics was provided far less data than the city had to share. The Buttigieg administration’s 2016 Diversity and Inclusion Report likewise omitted this data and other standard diversity statistics. Thus the public went uninformed, even as problems of retention continued. By the end of Buttigieg’s second term, the South Bend Police Department had lost half of its Black staff and officers. In mid-2019, as this situation was first reported to the public, an all-white officer cohort was sworn in.
3. Economic development
By the end of Buttigieg’s first term in office, city spending on contracts with African American businesses had fallen 100%. This downward trend was not reported at the time.
And matters got worse in his second term. The city board charged with developing minority and women-owned businesses went silent for years. City spending on African-American owned business was minimal. In 2017 just one Black-owned business registered a contract with the city, which was for $707 dollars, out of $101 million in city contracts. And the city’s annual reports on diversity in city purchasing were not posted online or completed in a timely way, leaving journalists and the public uninformed.
In 2019, a consultant’s report on diversity in city contracts was delayed until just before Buttigieg left office. The report contained substantial data, qualitative and quantitative, about bias and disorganization in the city administration. It revealed that the Buttigieg administration’s efforts on diversity were poorly supported. Even basic data on city contracts went uncollected, interfering with the report’s composition.
Buttigieg deserves credit for funding the report and an improvement it provided: a local diversity in purchasing ordinance was partly strengthened by the city council. But many of the consultant’s recommendations for administrative reform went unimplemented. Despite the consultant’s arguments for a stronger focus on the issue, South Bend did not report on diversity in city contracts in 2019 or answer questions formally submitted by the public about diversity in contracting, as promised. This has yet to be reported.
4. Public health
In late 2016 a public health epidemic of childhood lead poisoning was revealed. Some of South Bend’s predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods had children with rates of lead poisoning levels six times higher than those found in Flint, Michigan. “It’s an eye-opener,” Buttigieg said.
Despite open eyes, these lead-poisoned families received little abatement help. In his State of the City address that year, Buttigieg claimed South Bend had no money or staff for public health. At that same time, he personally brokered deals for luxury housing downtown with millions in public funds.
South Bend’s first federal grant application for funds to remediate sources of lead poisoning failed. Its second, secured in late 2018, was poorly implemented. The local Housing Authority lead abatement coordinator described being “left in a lurch” by the city. South Bend did not address a single home with this grant before Buttigieg left office in 2019. These last details have not been reported in the media.
Due to space constraints, one can only mention here other invisible conditions. The underrepresentation of African Americans in city leadership and in business contracts with the South Bend also occurred with Hispanics. The city’s violent crime rate, claiming Black lives in disproportion, surged while Buttigieg and his endorsed successor, James Mueller, told citizens that violent crime had declined. The last years of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data reveal vast departmental inequalities in hiring African Americans to open positions. Little of this has been reported.
It is hard to see systemic racism in South Bend. Our local journalism has degraded, as in many American cities. The cloaking of African American experiences by former Mayor Buttigieg and his campaign are particularly responsible. Duty to report to the public on equity in city leadership, public safety, business and public health was repeatedly abandoned, with regressive results.
It is all the more important now that we esteem the voices of Black community leaders and journalists. It is from them that we learned a “retirement” was three more experienced Black and Hispanic candidates getting passed over for fire chief. We see more because someone spoke up and said “there are Black-owned construction companies, but one reason a lot of them that I talked to went out of business because they can’t get contracts with the City.” And that Black public safety officers regretted their initial support for Buttigieg after being misrepresented. And that Buttigieg’s assertion that he “couldn’t get it done” on a diverse police force meant not meeting with or responding to 10 Black police officers alleging “racial discrimination … unfair treatment and fostering a hostile work environment.” We see the pain of families of Black and disabled victims of police brutality as they received insultingly low settlement offers by city leaders, and that South Bend families with lead-poisoned children faced huge application hurdles for city help that has not been granted.
These acts were done in our name. They are not minor matters like “squeaky wheels.” The invisibility of systemic racism is a primary reason respect and attention are owed to those who speak up. We need these illuminating perspectives on our city, so poorly lit, to see those too long invisible in South Bend.
class of 2002
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.