INDIANAPOLIS - Mayor Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign has a race problem. A Wintrop Poll out of South Carolina this past week revealed zero percent African-American support, and it hasn't been much better in a number of other surveys, where his total support has sagged into single digits. Thus, that he found himself in front of the Indianapolis NAACP Friday in his home state where he is devoid of conspicuous black support was an opportunity.

By the time he finished a keynote address and a Q&A session where he called for a "21st Century Voters Rights Act," he had earned two standing ovations. He spent much of the pre-speech dinner going table to table, pressing the flesh. Through it all, his calls to action and compelling observations seemed to resonate. It came in a state where African-American members of Congress, the General Assembly and the South Bend Council have been silent in their support for this 37-year-old mayor.

"I have seen the possibilities — and the limitations — of what can be done in a diverse community while our nation continues to accept the unacceptable," Buttigieg said during his keynote. "I also come at this from a perspective shaped by my own story and my own search for belonging. I have not had the experience of being more likely to be pulled over while driving, or less likely to be called back for a job interview, or less likely to be believed when describing symptoms at a hospital, simply because of the color of my skin. But part of what motivates me to stand up for those who are different from me, is the fact that people different from me helped bring me some of the most important rights in my life. 

"No two experiences of discrimination are alike," the South Bend mayor continued. "But I know something of the war that breaks out in the heart of a young person who realizes that a basic fact about him means he is more likely to be feared, hated, subject to random violence, and discriminated against. I know something of the amazing power of activism and advocacy, solidarity and alliance, to deliver equal rights. And as someone whose marriage exists by the grace of a single vote on the United States Supreme Court, I know why political decisions matter. Why politics matters. It matters because the decisions they make in those big white buildings reach into our neighborhoods, our offices, our homes and our marriages."

Buttigieg's presidential prospects, well-funded to the tune of $51 million (more than frontrunner Joe Biden) are contingent on making inroads with black voters. He was presented a major challenge and negative national press coverage in June when a police action shooting took the life of Eric Logan, who he mentioned twice on Friday night. Mayor Buttigieg responded to that tragedy with civic transparency, a couple of emotional town hall meetings and marches, while reaching out to Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

When HPI asked Indianapolis Council President Vop Osili if Buttigieg had made inroads with a previously skeptical audience, Osili paused briefly, then said, "He has more support tonight than he did last night."

Conventional wisdom is that this gay Democratic candidate faces a historic obstacle with black evangelical churches. The irony there is that the percentage of gay African-Americans is in sync with the rest of the population, so this is a political perception. Buttigieg attempted to take it on Friday night in a city facing record homicide rates. He did so as well as before the National Urban League in Detroit earlier this summer that earned very little media coverage, along with events in South Carolina where 60% of the primary vote will be African-American. 

At an August event in the African-American Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville, he found an audience mostly white and Millennial. “Find the people who don’t look like most of you in this room and let them know they have the chance, not just to support this campaign, but to shape it,” Buttigieg told them.

"When I launched this campaign, I understood on some level that confronting the urgency of this moment meant reckoning with race in America," Buttigieg said. "But it is one thing to understand this in theory, or from the perspective of one city. It’s another to get the education that comes with the travels you undertake as a presidential candidate. All of American life takes place under these shadows, not as a distant historical artifact but as a burning present reality which hurts everyone and everything it touches. And if we do not tackle the problem of racial inequity in our lifetime, I have become convinced that it will wreck the American project in my lifetime."

Buttigieg added, "It is not enough to treat this as some specialty issue, something to talk about with minority voters and then ignore elsewhere on the campaign trail. Which is why you will see me talking about the need to confront systemic racism not only at the NAACP dinner, but at the union hall, and with the American Legion, and in front of majority white audiences wherever we go. 

"I want it said of my candidacy and my presidency not only that we strengthened Black America, but that we helped all of America understand why this nation is not what we think it is until equality is real," he said.