Why Callout Culture Helps Mike Bloomberg

The Democratic base has been crying wolf in matters of racism and sexism.

MIchael Bloomberg
Brett Carlsen / Getty

As New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg subjected many innocent black, Hispanic, and Muslim residents to hyperaggressive policing tactics that flagrantly violated their rights under the Constitution. That authoritarian record ought to disqualify the Manhattan billionaire from consideration for the Democratic nomination, I argued back in November, a judgment shared by writers at publications as different as Jacobin, The American Conservative, Rolling Stone, and CNN.

Now Bloomberg’s record is under attack from rivals in the Democratic primary who are also resurfacing accusations that he has demeaned women in the workplace. My colleague Megan Garber chronicled multiple allegations against him in a 2018 article for The Atlantic. In November, The New York Times quoted a campaign spokesman declaring that “Mike has come to see that some of what he has said is disrespectful and wrong.” And while Bloomberg has long denied that he told a female employee to “kill it” when he learned that she was pregnant, as the employee alleged in a sexual-harassment lawsuit, The Washington Post reported this week that it found a former Bloomberg employee, David Zielenziger, who “said he witnessed the conversation.” In multiple other sexual-harassment cases, Bloomberg’s accusers signed nondisclosure agreements when settling lawsuits with him. The candidate says he will keep enforcing them.

These are significant matters, as several candidates noted in Wednesday night’s debate. Stop-and-frisk turned New York City into a dystopian police state for many innocent black and brown residents, who were pushed against walls while trying to walk around their communities. The truth about sexual harassment at Bloomberg the company is less certain, but worth investigating given that, if accurate, the allegations show a pattern of selfish, abusive behavior that a CEO persisted in long after being alerted to its ill effects.

However, I fear that even the most careful, accurate, damning critiques of Bloomberg on these matters will have trouble breaking through to any but the most informed Democratic voters. Casual media consumers are inundated with hyperbolic, frivolous, and slight accusations related to racism or sexism. As a result, many now reflexively discount all criticism of that sort while others seem unable to distinguish mortal from venial sins.

A reflexive discounting of racism charges was on display during a recent Bill Maher monologue. The HBO host said, “Well, Bloomberg must be the front-runner, because liberals are calling him a racist."

As for a failure to distinguish serious transgressions against racial equality from trivial distractions, consider a Washington Post op-ed that ran last week. In the op-ed, titled “Pete Buttigieg’s Race Problem,” a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Tyler D. Parry, said of white Democratic candidates, “Each of them has been criticized for harboring a superficial understanding of American anti-blackness, if not manifesting outright racism.” Oddly, the op-ed didn’t mention Bloomberg or his candidacy at all, but noted that “Amy Klobuchar has a questionable prosecutorial record; Joe Biden has drawn criticism for his voting record on civil rights legislation; Elizabeth Warren’s campaign was accused of marginalizing staffers of color, for which she apologized; and Bernie Sanders was criticized for conflating the conditions of poor whites with people of African descent. But it is Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who arguably demonstrates the most consistent racial ignorance among his cohort.”

What did Buttigieg do to justify being singled out instead of the guy who championed stop-and-frisk, or rivals accused of racially biased prosecutions or bad votes on civil-rights legislation?

Parry explained:

Not only does he hold a dismal record in representing the black residents of his municipality, but his past musings on race and the state of black America — from his 2011 discussion of young black kids failing due to the lack of role models, to his invocation of the “All Lives Matter” mantra just five years ago, to the recent accusations that his campaign uses black supporters as political props—expose shallow analysis of systemic racism throughout his political career … his recent remarks invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. should keep concerns about his commitment to addressing racism front and center. While Buttigieg encouraged Americans to “recommit” to King’s work, and asserted that we can realize King’s dream by building a future defined not by exclusion “but by belonging,” he repeated a common error committed by white Americans in King’s time and today. His posts said nothing of the specific plight of African Americans and appeared to invoke a colorblind vision of post-racial unity that many incorrectly ascribe to MLK.

Buttigieg’s “race problem,” in Parry’s telling, is that he does not adopt the particular rhetoric or understanding of critical race theorists when trying to highlight his black supporters or call on Americans to be anti-racist. Ostensibly imperfect language and departures from an analytic framework that many anti-racists of goodwill reject are treated as if they are on par with civil-rights abuses and denials.

The Black Lives Matters protesters who have plagued Buttigieg’s campaign also seem to lack perspective. Their grievances include a police shooting in South Bend and the disproportionate rate at which black residents there are arrested for marijuana possession. Those are serious matters, but nearly every sizable jurisdiction in America has questionable police shootings and racial disparities in War on Drugs arrest rates, even when they elect mayors who champion racial justice and criminal-justice reform. Buttigieg, unlike many of his rivals, favors the decriminalization of drugs. He has certainly never affirmatively defended policing that targeted people on the basis of race or religion.

But you’d never discern the huge difference between Buttigieg and Bloomberg if you merely saw one of the flyers passed out by Black Lives Matter protesters in Iowa that declared, “Mayor Pete Has a Black Problem.” Buttigieg was also heckled as “antiblack” by Black Lives Matter protesters during a campaign visit to Los Angeles. “Racist police or racist Pete?” one sign declared. Kat Redding, a Black Lives Matter activist, said to the Washington Times, “To me, Mayor Pete is the equivalent of [Donald] Trump. I feel like Trump is very aggressive with his racism, and I think Mayor Pete is very passive with his racism. They are just two of the same people.” If that is the tenor of rhetoric against Buttigieg, what language is left to distinguish someone with Bloomberg’s record?

Here’s Michael Harriot writing about the former South Bend mayor at The Root: “Pete Buttigieg is standing over a dying man, holding the oxygen machine in his hand and telling everyone: ‘Nah, he doesn’t need CPR. He’s just holding his breath.’ Negligent homicide is still homicide.”

Coverage of Bernie Sanders has also been more severe than his record merits. The senator from Vermont was principled, courageous, and anomalous among white people in his early civil-rights activism. But the casual news consumer forming an impressionistic sense of his standing from headlines and snippets of television and radio news during the last election cycle may only remember that Black Lives Matter protesters took over the stage at one of his rallies.

In this election cycle, Sanders has been attacked for alleged problems with women. Hillary Clinton accused Sanders of “supporting” a culture of attacking women.

“I don’t want another misogynist as president,” Meghan McCain declared last month on The View, adding that Sanders is “a bullying man candidate” and that “women in this country are sick of it … I have always thought he has had a problem with women.” That accusation and many others against Sanders were aired after Elizabeth Warren claimed that Sanders told her in a private conversation that a woman could not win the presidency. Sanders denied having said so––and that denial is consistent with the fact that in 2013, he explicitly urged Elizabeth Warren to run for president, declaring, “I like Elizabeth Warren very much. Her beauty is that she is very smart. She speaks English. She can explain economics in a way that everybody can understand.”

Yet Virginia Heffernan argued in the Los Angeles Times that by denying Warren’s account of their private conversation, Sanders “only enacted the sexism he was at pains to deny … Warren won … She didn’t let Sanders get away with denying he’s sexist Tuesday night. Instead, she checkmated him into proving it.”

Bloomberg could hardly ask for a better rhetorical environment. As Trump showed, no one benefits from a cultural fixation on microaggressions more than serial macroaggressors, whose bad deeds shrink in seeming significance among endless callouts.

The takeaway here is not that racism or sexism can be discussed only in their most egregious incarnations. A healthy public discourse should accommodate constructive criticism directed at venial sins. But too often, criticism touching race or gender is aimed at destroying alleged sinners rather than at improving society, and framed in maximalist terms for political or rhetorical advantage. As a result, the electorate grows less able to distinguish between transgressions as trivial as well-intentioned but poorly chosen words and as serious as civil-rights abrogations.

That no one is perfect on issues of race and gender is perhaps true. That anything short of perfection is attacked with the same vitriol and ferocity as malfeasance is a problem for Democrats, because when everything is problematic, nothing is.

The politics that result are more dangerous for the least powerful, because as much effort is expended “protecting” them from clumsy words as from proponents of institutionalized state violence.

My colleague John McWhorter, with whom I often agree, adroitly captured the awfulness of stop-and-frisk in an article last week, but argued that beating Trump is too important to treat that policy as disqualifying. “What black Americans want by overwhelming margins is for a moral and intelligent candidate to replace Donald Trump,” he wrote, “and fetishizing wokeness above all other concerns may be antithetical to that paramount goal.” In my estimation, “fetishizing wokeness” is when a commentator turns on Buttigieg’s candidacy, as one observer did in the Los Angeles Times, because Buttigieg once attempted political outreach to Tea Partiers, demanded the resignation of a black police chief who broke wiretapping laws, and put out a list of people who endorsed his Douglass Plan for Black America that was roughly 40 percent white.

In contrast, Bloomberg’s policies did not merely violate an “up-to-the-minute” woke test predicated on purity politics that no one can satisfy. Stop-and-frisk is the stuff of police states.

McWhorter went on:

For some, stop-and-frisk is a deal-breaker. Note how modern—up-to-the minute, even—it seems to disqualify Bloomberg for one mistake on race, even if he would govern better than Trump has in all ways. It’s straight from the woke playbook. Freezing out the former mayor would also be a kind of atonement for the left’s having let pass Hillary Clinton’s “superpredator” comment in the 1990s. Atonement is the operative word here. To shout down Bloomberg because of that one policy would constitute a strain of anti-racism that has all the characteristics of religion rather than rationality.

To me, considering Bloomberg disqualified in a Democratic primary is a rational response to his record, not a religious one, because he long pursued and defended abhorrent policies. In addition to failing the woke test, he fails the treating people of all races with equal dignity test, the upholding civil rights test, the adhering to the Constitution test, and the authoritarian test. Our era’s woke rhetoric makes it hard for even keen observers to discern how relatively awful his record was and the threat he still poses if elected. And that is a strike against it.