South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg discussed his racial awakening at NABJ 2019.Rebecca Cook / Reuters

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was ready for the question. It’s one that has dogged the 37-year-old since his long-shot White House bid caught fire in the spring, launching him into the top tier of 2020 Democratic candidates: How does he remedy his near-nonexistent support among black voters?

Speaking onstage at the National Association of Black Journalists’ convention in Miami, Buttigieg made quick mention of his Douglass Plan, a sweeping proposal to address racial inequality through actions such as boosting funding for historically black colleges and universities and cutting incarceration rates. The forum, moderated by the Atlantic staff writer Vann R. Newkirk II, Craig Melvin of NBC, and Alexi McCammond of Axios, featured three other 2020 hopefuls: Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, an old-school New England centrist challenging Donald Trump for the GOP nomination.

Buttigieg didn’t appear prepared for a follow-up question about his Douglass Plan: No matter how much he says systemic racism is a white-people problem, how does he get white people to support his ideas on how to fix it?

Buttigieg has struggled to win over black voters more than many other top-tier candidates. He was largely unknown coming into the race, and his quick rise in the polls brought new scrutiny to long-running racial tensions between the black community in South Bend and the city’s overwhelmingly white police force. Buttigieg faced protesters on the campaign trail after a 54-year-old black man was killed in a police shooting in June. When he was asked during that month’s first Democratic debate why the department had not hired more black officers, he conceded, “Because I couldn’t get it done.”

In a July poll of South Carolina Democrats by Monmouth University, Buttigieg was in fifth place, with 5 percent of the vote. But his support came almost entirely from white voters. While Buttigieg was the first choice of 11 percent of white Democrats, he was at just 1 percent among blacks.

Buttigieg did little to assuage concerns that no amount of policy white papers or postures toward African American voters would help persuade white Americans to support his plans to foster equality. At NABJ, he spoke of the necessity of reparations and about his awakening that racism isn’t just something that “happened a long time ago.”

After Buttigieg finished, it was time for Sanders, whose own inability to win over black voters in 2016 prevented him from posing a bigger threat to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. (She trounced him by nearly 50 points in the South Carolina primary and by similarly large margins throughout the South.) Though some of Sanders’s support has slipped this time around, there is less of a gap between white and black voters who appear to be backing him in his 2020 bid.

Sanders framed his well-worn talking points, such as Medicare for All and free college, in explicitly racial terms, but the crowd didn’t always appear receptive to his message. When asked by Melvin whether his plan to wipe out student loans was unfair to people like the moderator himself, who said he had just finished paying off his loans, Sanders didn’t provide a direct answer, and was interrupted by someone in the crowd urging him to “answer the question!”

Booker, who along with Senator Kamala Harris of California is one of the two black candidates in the 2020 field, was far more explicit than the other candidates in talking about race. His lines didn’t always land though: After giving an opening statement on racism and the need for more black journalists, he sat down and told the moderators that he wouldn’t “R. Kelly you.” (Booker clarified that he was referencing a viral interview featuring his favorite black journalist, Gayle King, in which she asked Kelly about the rape allegations against him.)

Following their appearances at NABJ, all three Democrats are expected to attend the Iowa State Fair in the coming days, where they will surely be asked by reporters to speak on racial issues again.

Russell Berman contributed to this report.

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