Does Race Matter In '08? The View From York, Pa.

This is the second report 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 Morning Edition 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.

Most voters say they won't decide between Barack Obama and John McCain on the basis of race. But, in a question that is more subtle than the standard questions in a poll, can a decision be based on the racial experience of the voter?

Of the 13 voters interviewed by Morning Edition and All Things Considered, many said this election had them thinking about race in new ways.

"I don't know if I can see another old white man as president," says Cal Weary. He's a black high school drama teacher who voted for President Bush in the past two elections. He knows that his declaration might sound harsh.

"And that sounds very racist for me to say it that way, but it is about appearances, and it is about this country, everywhere else being looked as being the biggest lie," Weary says. "You tell everyone in the world that we have the greatest opportunities here, you tell them anyone can start from shining shoes and be in charge of a Fortune 500 company, but then you say to the rest of the world, you say, 'You can have everything, but you can't live in the big White House.'"

The discussion was difficult for some, who folded their arms, sighed nervously and — at times — were confrontational.

"I don't think there is a problem with a black man," says Don Gettys, a retired police officer, who is white. "I personally don't think Obama is the right one. He doesn't have the experience."

Margie Orr, a black receptionist, takes exception to Gettys' view of Obama's experience.

"My thing is, though, what would make you think Palin would be — OK — we know John McCain has medical problems, God forbid that this man is elected, and this white female, so what you're saying is, though, the United States would rather see — as long as they're white — they don't care if she's even a female, but as long as it's a white person ..."

"No, I don't think that's the case," Gettys responds. "She has more executive experience than he does. He was a community organizer. Nobody's ever told me what a community organizer is."

Says Orr: "Then maybe that's something then that you need to investigate."

Experiences With Race

But in order to understand how — or if — race affects voting decisions, it helps to learn more about these voters' experiences with race.

"I can't recall any privilege that I got because I was white," Gettys says. "I mean, I went to city schools. But I don't know of anything that I got because I was white that the black kids couldn't have gotten the same thing."

Margie Orr recalls that hers was the first black family to move to their suburb. That was in 1963.

"We weren't wanted there, of course, and the whites did everything they could to intimidate us to get us to move," Orr says. "But my parents were staunch-hearted people. We weren't going to budge. So, of course, we stayed there. We endured it all: the break-ins, the house being messed up, the whole nine yards, being called niggers."

Orr dabs at her eyes when questioning why diversity has to be enforced.

"I mean, my parents taught me to love everybody. So I'm saying, 'But you have to be taught to love me?'" she says. "That's hard to understand."

Leah Moreland, a widow and former factory worker, says she grew up on a farm and was very sheltered.

"I really was totally unaware of prejudice," Moreland says.

Moreland says she lived at the end of West 6 Market Street bus line.

"There was a black man who would ride the bus and come out to the end of the line with his shotgun on the bus that would go groundhog hunting," Moreland says. "Dad would go out and say 'How many orders do you have,' because the people in the black community here in York ate groundhog. In fact, my mother cooked groundhog. And he would go out and hunt, but there was no prejudice in my home."

Race And Decision-Making

The hosts asked the voters who they planned to back in November, and how their racial experience or identity factored into that decision.

Orr, who still carries the scars of integration, says she plans to vote for Obama. She says her vote is based on pride, but you get a sense of something else:

"I'm a Democrat, and I'm going to vote for Obama, and one of the reasons is because he is black," Orr says. "I think he is qualified and come on, let's face facts. This man is going to be wiretapped up to his eyeballs. Come on people. You really think he is going to be put in office, and they are not going to keep an eye on him? Be for real.

"They are going to watch this man like white on rice. He's not going to be his own person per se. He is going to be screened to the max. ... The white system ... that's who 'they' are, OK?"

Jeff Lobach, a white attorney, says he is surprised by the intolerance he sees in York today.

"White people are almost invariably shocked when they hear some of the things that African-Americans have to put up with," Lobach says. "It cuts across economic groups, too. African-American professionals in this town are treated differently. These are highly paid folks who are part of the 'haves' right now. We have had incidents where white lawyers won't shake the hand of a black lawyer."

But he also says he senses that change is in the air. Racial attitudes are shifting, including his own.

"I think if Sen. Obama is elected, it's not going to be because he's African-American," Lobach says. "I think we can all agree on that. If he's defeated, I hope it's not because he's an African-American, I think we all agree about that, too."

But Lobach still has a solid allegiance to his party: "I am an enthusiastic supporter of McCain right now, because I think this is his moment."

Leah Moreland, the woman who said she grew up sheltered from prejudice, plans to vote for McCain. Party loyalty is also part of her decision. But her cultural compass also comes into play. She says her gut tells her not to trust Obama.

"I look at Obama, and I have a question in my mind," she says. "Years ago, was he taken into the Muslim faith? And my concern is the only way you are no longer a Muslim is if you are dead, killed. So in my mind, he's still alive."

Although Barack Obama has said repeatedly he is not a Muslim and has never been a Muslim, Moreland is still unconvinced.

"There is something about him I don't trust," she says. "I don't care how good a speaker he is, I just can't trust him."

Where They Fall

At the end of the evening, a tally was taken of the support for the candidates.

Of the seven white voters and six voters of color, the majority of white voters are supporting McCain. All of the people of color are supporting Obama.

What does that say? Coincidence? Or is something else at work?

"I only heard one person even say or even think the reason they were voting that was because of race," says property manager Charlotte Bergdoll, the sole undecided voter.

She said she didn't see a connection between race and political choice, and in that assessment she wasn't alone.

But after the voters spent more time debating that divide — again, all the voters of color behind Obama, and almost all the white voters behind John McCain — most came to a reluctant conclusion.

Does race matter on a subconscious level? There was a series of exasperated utterances of "Yes."

And that raises one last question: Just how much are people aware of their biases or fears?

Cal Weary — black drama teacher, former Bush backer, current Obama supporter — says deep divisions on race might always be an obstacle.

"When someone asks the question like, 'Is America ready for a black president?' They're saying, 'Has American forgotten what it's done to black people?' and 'Have the black people forgotten what has been done to them?'" Weary says. "Is he going to be able to go in there and be respected? Because they're still making comments like: 'Oh, but he's so well-spoken,' and 'Oh my goodness, he's different than the rest.'"

"[It's] the same kind of thing I grew up with," Weary notes. "And I understand why they're asking the question. If you ask me if America is ready for it, I don't think they are. But when are we ever ready for anything that is a radical change?"

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