Voters Confront Race And Politics In York, Pa.

This is the first in a series of conversations NPR is having with voters in York, Pa., about race and its role in the 2008 presidential election. Steve Inskeep and Michele Norris plan to meet with a group of 13 voters — a mix of whites, blacks and Latinos — from this swing state several times this fall to dig a little bit deeper than election polls.

More From The York Panel

Listen to the conversation All Things Considered aired on Thursday.

Read Michele Norris' Essay

Michele Norris writes about why she wanted to explore the issue of race in this presidential election and why NPR chose York, Pa.

Speaking frankly about race makes York, Pa., voter Sarah Yacoviello, who is white, uncomfortable.

"I think that sounds strange, but I want to be made uncomfortable because I don't pretend to understand the plight of African-American or Hispanic, or any other nationality that's not my own," she says.

Cal Weary, an African-American, says he's almost always aware of his race.

"I'm not a blind black man. I do see what happens when I walk into certain stores," he says. "I still feel the same anxiety I had when I was 5 or 6 years old and seeing the difference between my white friends, when they walked into the store and how they were treated, and how I was."

Yacoviello and Weary sit in a hotel suite with 11 other voters — a mix of whites, blacks and Latinos. The group loosely reflects the demographic of York, which has a rich, uneven history of race relations. Over the years, racial tensions have waxed and waned but never disappeared.

Morning Edition and All Things Considered traveled to York recently to tackle some tough questions about race:

What are the occasions, if any, when you become aware of your race?

Is discrimination underestimated by white Americans?

Do black people make too much of discrimination?

Do you think America is ready to elect a black president?

Nancy Snyder, who is white, adopted two children of races different from hers. When her adopted African-American son was 18 months old, she says, she took one look at his feet and knew he was going to grow to over 6 feet tall. She told her husband she figured she had "about a decade to build a good rapport with him."

Her husband challenged her on it. "My husband said, 'Would you ever say that if he were white?' And I wouldn't," she says.

Snyder wasn't the only one in the room who had to confront fear of African-American men.

Weary says he's felt that way, too.

He says he developed a fear of black males while attending an almost all-white prep school.

"I was mimicking the fears that these people that I went to school with had," Weary says, adding that he doesn't feel that way now. "I am the large black man that you would have feared coming to your door."

Weary's remark prompted a response from Michael Smith, a large black man sitting across the room.

"A large black man has to be very friendly. They like a large, black, friendly man," Weary says.

So what do these York voters think pollsters are getting at when they ask whether America is ready to elect a black president?

African-American voters jumped at that question first.

"I think the question is, they just don't think a black person is smart enough," says Margie Orr.

Don Gettys, who is white, disagrees.

"I don't think there'd be a problem with him being black," Gettys says, referring to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. "It's just personally, I don't think he's the right one."

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