Talking Race And Slurs In Nevada

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In Elko in rural Nevada, ther aren't many Democrats. Nonetheless, the Obama campaign has a well-organized presence there. We accompany some canvassers as they go door-to-door. Some of the resulting conversations include strong language.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. We've been talking this week on Day to Day about race and the election. What it might mean for black Americans if one of their own became president? And producer Adam Burke spent some time in rural Nevada recently.

BRAND: He talked with voters and campaign volunteers about race, how it comes up and how they handle it. And just a warning to listeners, this piece does contain some offensive language.

ADAM BURKE: I covered a few thousand miles and talked to dozens of people in towns and small cities across the northern tier of Nevada. Maybe it's no surprise, but I never heard anyone say, OK, I admit it, I'm a racist. And there was only one time where I witnessed what would call transparent bigotry. It was a few weeks ago. I was packing up my gear after an event at the McCain campaign headquarters in Fallon, Nevada, when a slight elderly man in his 60s approached me. Barack Hussein Obama, he shouted at me, Barack Hussein Obama. He was shaking a little, and bits of spit flew out of his mouth as he spoke. I'm tired of him hiding his middle name from us, he said. He's a Muslim, and you can quote me on that. I glanced over at Mark Feest, the county chair for the local Republican Party. Feest didn't say anything, but he looked a little worried.

Mr. MARK FEEST (Chairman, Churchill County Republican Party, Nevada): I didn't feel good, obviously, about what the guy was saying, but oftentimes when you're talking to someone who's irrational, there's no point arguing with them.

BURKE: Several days later outside the Republican headquarters in Fallon, Mark Feest and I talked about what have happened.

Mr. FEEST: I don't doubt that there will be some people who vote for John McCain because they have some racist thoughts in their mind or because of something they heard that's not true about Senator Obama, but we don't want to give the impression that intolerance drives our vote or that bad facts drive our vote.

BURKE: And when racially charged language does enter into a conversation, Feest heads it off as quickly as possible.

Mr. FEEST: We try to guide them back to the issues, because we do think there's a difference between Senator Obama and Senator McCain's politics, and that's what we try to focus on.

BURKE: As for discussions about race in Fallon...

Mr. FEEST: We really don't think about it that much, and maybe that's being a little idealistic, and certainly people might censor themselves depending on who they're talking to. So, maybe people are self censoring around me, I don't know, but I don't really see it as an issue.

BURKE: In rural northern Nevada, vast alkaline basins are broken by hills and mountains the color of sand, buck skin and baked bread. The city of Elko is way out in the middle of all this, halfway between Salt Lake City and Reno on the interstate. George W. Bush got 80 percent of the county vote in 2004, but the Obama campaign has been pushing hard in Elko, with dozens of volunteers working phone banks and canvassing neighborhoods. I went canvassing with Amy Lamm (ph) who moved here from Portland, Oregon, a few years ago. She was knocking on doors in the nearby town of Carlin, pushing Democrats to vote early and trying to persuade people who are still on the fence.

Ms. AMY LAMM (Volunteer, Obama Campaign, Elko, Nevada): Let's talk to Joyce.

BURKE: We approached the double-wide trailer where 73-year-old Joyce Langefelter (ph) lives. A number of small dogs are throwing themselves against the screen door.

Ms. LAMM: Hi.

Ms. JOYCE LANGEFELTER (Resident, Elko, Nevada): Hello.

Ms. LAMM: How are you?

Ms. LANGEFELTER: I'm fine, thank you. What can I do for you?

Ms. LAMM: My name is Amy, and I'm with the Obama campaign.

Ms. LANGEFELTER: Uh-huh.

BURKE: It turns out Langefelter, who's been a Democrat all her life, has already voted.

Ms. LANGEFELTER: Well, I didn't vote for Obama. I just felt kind of concerned about some things and...

BURKE: Can you tell me what your concerns were?

Ms. LANGEFELTER: I'd rather not.

BURKE: None of them are...

Ms. LANGEFELTER: I just would rather not.

BURKE: Langefelter will talk about John McCain a little. She's concerned about him, too, especially his stands on social programs.

Ms. LANGEFELTER: I don't know about his Medicare and all his statements about that.

BURKE: Do you want to tell me anything about your doubts about Obama in terms of why you wouldn't want to vote for him?

Ms. LANGEFELTER: No, that's my privilege.

BURKE: Afterward, Amy Lamm shares a hunch.

Ms. LAMM: Be nice to sit down and talk with her and figure out what her views were. But at some point, there's just, like, a wall, and just running into that wall gets frustrating.

Ms. MABEL KITE (Volunteer, Obama Campaign, Elko, Nevada): I just try to remain really calm and not get angry at all.

BURKE: In Elko, I meet Mabel Kite (ph), another volunteer for the Obama campaign. She's worked the phone banks for over a year.

Ms. KITE: I had more positive phone calls than I had negative phone calls.

BURKE: Some people have just hung up on her, but in one instance, she called a woman in a nearby town.

Ms. KITE: And when her husband answered the phone, I just introduced myself and said I was working for the Barack Obama campaign, and he said, that nigger. I said, you mean Senator Obama? No, I mean, that nigger. He said, I would never vote for him, and if my wife does, she can leave home. I said, well, please tell her that I called and thank you for your time.

BURKE: This kind of exchange between strangers is rare in Elko, according to the volunteers I spoke with, but apparently, it's the kind of talk that occurs more often in private.

Ms. THELMA HOMER (Resident, Elko, Nevada): I think race is an issue out here.

BURKE: Seventy-five-year-old Thelma Homer (ph) was born in Elko and has lived there all but five of those years.

Ms. HOMER: And I know some people who would absolutely have that attitude, and no, I'm not voting for a black guy for president, but they would never admit it. They don't want to be called racist.

BURKE: Homer is a Republican. She's voting for John McCain. She says many of her friends, especially older ones, associate Barack Obama's policies with the color of his skin.

Ms. HOMER: Many of them just say, oh, you know, we don't want a black guy in there. He doesn't want guns. He's got this share-the-wealth type policy. He wants universal healthcare. Well, it's because he is black. They feel that he is - he won't represent them properly. He wants to help his own.

Ms. JULIE EMBREY (Resident, Elko, Nevada): Race is a part of this campaign. We all want to dance around it, but yes, it's there.

BURKE: Less than one percent of Elko County's residents are black. I meet a few of them at the Cimarron Ice Cream shop in town, including Julie Embrey (ph) and Charles Wright (ph).

Ms. EMBREY: In the beginning here, we heard a lot of negative things. We heard racial things about Obama.

Mr. CHARLES WRIGHT (Resident, Elko, Nevada): We would hear people going around saying, oh, he can't do anything. He's a terrorist, and he works for the rag heads and all that stuff, but now people are starting to wake up.

BURKE: Embrey says Obama's candidacy gave people a chance to confront racial tensions in Elko. She sees progress.

Ms. EMBREY: We called them and talked to them on the phone. They hung up in our face. We called them back and still treated them nice and came to their house and they began to stop looking at the fact that it was a black woman coming to the front door, not that they was going to invite me in and make a part of their family all of a sudden, but now they are receptive. So, it's changed. The atmosphere has changed.

BURKE: In the last 50 years, most Americans have learned to hide their awkward feelings about race in the space between words and the things they don't say. People in Elko and across northern Nevada have begun an awkward conversation, one that many hope will continue regardless of Tuesday's outcome. For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.

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