Frederick Douglass’s warning to lawmakers was sharp and direct. “No republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them,” he wrote in The Atlantic in 1866. The postwar government had not done its job, and it needed to be “consistent with itself”; consistent with the founding document that said “all men are created equal.”
America is still doing the work of atoning for its legacy of slavery and ongoing discrimination, and today, Pete Buttigieg, part of the horde of Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nod, released his plan to do so—an 18-page document he is calling “The Douglass Plan,” named for the famed orator and activist. “We have to speak specifically to the effects that racism has had in getting us to where we are,” Buttigieg said during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Atlantic last month. The plan lays out a laundry list of proposals that address racial inequities in health care, education, voter suppression, and the criminal-justice system.
The proposal comes as Buttigieg has gotten some traction with white voters, but has struggled with black ones. After the first set of debates, his poll numbers slipped to 4 percent overall in the crowded field; but among black voters, he polled at zero percent. His record with the black community in South Bend has been equally strained; notably, he fired the first black police chief, and struggled to recruit other black officers. In this context, Buttigieg’s emphasis on criminal-justice reform stands out, especially as his handling of a recent case in South Bend, where a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, Eric J. Logan, has drawn intense scrutiny.
Last week, Buttigieg defended his commitment to the black community in an interview with CNN. Evidence of that attentiveness, he said, lay within the forthcoming Douglass Plan. The plan is ambitious, and will undoubtedly serve as a pillar he will refer to as the campaign wears on. Whether the plan can translate into support from the broader black community is unclear.
But one thing is for sure: The plan is evidence that he is acknowledging the role discrimination has played in creating today’s America. “It remains morally and economically incumbent upon America to fix what our policies consciously and deliberately wrought over centuries,” the Buttigieg campaign says in the plan. “America’s racist structures were built to justify and perpetuate slavery, and by achieving greater equity for Black Americans we lay the groundwork for achieving greater equity for other people of color as well.”
Together, the remedies Buttigieg proposes are robust, with moon-shot efforts to reduce the prison population by 50 percent and boost black homeownership rates. The plan reflects Buttigieg’s signature modus operandi—leaning heavily on academic theory and policy research. Other details of the plan include a pledge to increase the number of underrepresented groups in health professions and revamp the civil-rights office in the Department of Health and Human Services that works to prohibit discrimination. Then there’s his push to increase funds for schools with high numbers of low-income students. He also aims to make college tuition-free for low-income students, and plans to make major federal investments in historically black colleges and universities—institutions founded primarily after the Civil War to educate black people who were shut out of higher education—of about $25 billion.
Support for black colleges falls squarely within Douglass’s vision as well. Colleges would be important, Frederick Douglass wrote in a letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1853, not only for the progress of individual free black people, but for the progress of the race more broadly. He imagined places that taught practical agricultural and mechanical skills while still offering a classical education. HBCUs did just that.
Several candidates have indicated that they would provide tangible, financial resources to HBCUs, which have been hampered by funding disparities for decades. Hillary Clinton urged on the trend when, in the last week of the 2016 election, she announced in an op-ed that she would invest $25 billion in the colleges. Now, Elizabeth Warren has pledged $50 billion to the colleges and other minority-serving institutions. Julián Castro has said he would invest $3 billion a year in the institutions. And Buttigieg, with his Douglass Plan, is mirroring Clinton’s commitment.