On Race: Pushing Beyond What Is Left Unsaid

We've spent a lot of time talking about race and politics in this election year. Even so, I often leave those discussions thinking that there's much that was left unsaid.

Race is a tricky subject, and explicit discussions often get uncomfortable. It's all too easy for people to get tangled up in a minefield of anger and resentment, accusations and guilt, overstatement and amnesia. And it's especially tough when reporters are trying to extract people's views under deadline and then condense those views into manageable sound bites.

I am in no way suggesting that people are not honest. But I do wonder if we give people enough time to fully explore a complex subject like race.

So we decided to try something new. We brought a diverse group of voters together — black, white and Latino — for a long and candid discussion about race.

So, Why York?

We chose York, Pa., as the site for this discussion. Pennsylvania is an important battleground state, and York is in the center of it. And it's a two-hour drive from our Washington studios.
It's a midsize city with an interesting history. During the Revolutionary War, York served as the fledgling nation's temporary capital. The Articles of Confederation were drafted and adopted in York. It was also a major stop for escaped slaves trying to find their way north on the Underground Railroad.

Over time, the city became a major manufacturing center. And while heavy industry has been closing elsewhere in Pennsylvania, factories in the York area produce barbells, Harley Davidson motorcycles, air conditioners and animal crackers. They also roast Starbucks coffee. And if you were wondering — yes, it was once home to York Peppermint Patties, though the company was bought by neighboring Hershey years ago.

York also has a history of strained race relations. In 1969, the city suffered through 10 days of racial riots. The violence claimed two victims: a white police officer named Henry Schaad and a young black minister's daughter named Lillie Belle Allen.

The wounds from that era were inflamed again more recently. In 2001, two black men were arrested and charged with the murder of Henry Schaad. That same year, the mayor of York and several other white men were arrested in connection with Lillie Belle Allen's homicide. Witnesses testified that then-Mayor Charlie Robertson had given ammunition to whites during the York riots when he served as a city police officer. Robertson was acquitted. Two other men were convicted of murder, and six others pleaded guilty in Allen's killing.

Today, blacks and Latinos make up 40 percent of York's 41,000 residents. In recent elections, the city has leaned toward Democrats. The surrounding suburbs are less diverse and a conservative stronghold.

—Michele Norris

And not just one discussion. We've made a commitment to meet with voters for a series of conversations. We'll be heading back to York, Pa., again next month. The idea is to let the voters get comfortable enough with each other and with us to push beyond the discomfort and natural defenses that often crop up in discussions about race. And we're interested in seeing if their views or assumptions would change over time.

And in a pairing that's all too rare, Morning Edition and All Things Considered joined forces. We work in the same building, but the truth is, I rarely see Steve Inskeep because of our hours. In this case, we got to hit the road together and travel to the racially diverse, industrial town of York.

Steve's white and I'm black, and together we wanted to explore the complexities and conundrums in race and politics.

And since we wanted to make sure our voters got comfortable, we began our discussion with comfort food. Thirteen voters from York and the surrounding suburbs joined us for dinner. Our producers had carefully selected a group that loosely represented York's demographics: young and old; Democrats, Republicans and independents. We thought it was a fairly random group, but once we got into the room, it turned out there were all kinds of connections.

The real estate agent and the high school drama teacher had a school connection. The lawyer remembered the law enforcement officer who used to visit his high school for anti-drug presentations. The former factory worker and the seamstress had a common acquaintance. Such is life in a fairly small city.

Once we got into the discussion, it was clear that blacks and whites had a very different view of race. When asked when they were most aware of their racial status, most white voters said it's something they rarely think about. But most black voters said it's something they can't escape.

"Everyday when you walk out the door, you know what color you are," said 27-year-old Jazmin Byers. Her mother is black and her father is white. "You don't have to think about your color every morning when you get up and walk out the door and interact with someone of a different background. You think of it every day. Other people, Caucasian people, don't have to think about that," Byers said.

Byers is an assistant director of multiculturalism at York College. She shared a love seat with her mother Cynthia during the discussion. Cynthia described being asked for multiple IDs when visiting the bank, though the same demands were never made of her husband. Jazmin nodded along in anger.

A few seats away, Sarah Yacoviell sat with eyes open wide. Though she didn't say a word, her surprise was obvious. There it was. That thing that goes unsaid.

The discussion was more difficult for some than others. In the beginning, there were lots of folded arms and nervous looks.

Read Steve Inskeep's Essay

Steve Inskeep finds that blacks seem to speak more comfortably about race than whites. He asks: "Whether we are white or black, do we really know ourselves?"

Over time, there was candor and also confrontation. At one point, a white law enforcement officer and a black receptionist had a sharp exchange over Obama's qualifications.

When asked if a black man can serve as commander in chief in a country where black people had a hard time registering to vote 50 years ago, Blanche Hake, a white retired school teacher, said "yes."

"But," she added, "he'll need help because he's not a military man."

A few seats over, Michael Segarra's eyebrows shot up. An "are you kidding me?" expression moved across his face.

Again, that thing that is unsaid.

But later, Segarra spoke up, saying he wondered why someone would suggest Obama needed help when other candidates have run for office without strong military backgrounds.

Others piped up to say, of course Obama would need help. All presidents do. And the nation is at war, after all. But others — particularly voters of color — were convinced Obama was being held to a different standard.

It was just one exchange that illustrated how people of different backgrounds can hear the same message, but draw completely different conclusions.

At the end of the discussion, the 13 voters all said they learned something new during the evening, and so did we. Pollsters have traditionally had a tough time assessing voters' attitudes about race. After spending time with the voters in York, I have a better understanding of why that is so tough. To get a true measure, it's sometimes best to push beyond just the answers ... to get to that thing that is left unsaid.

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