Changing Perspectives On Race, Politics In York, Pa.

This is the sixth and final report in a series of conversations with voters in York, Pa., about race and its role in the 2008 presidential election. Steve Inskeep and Michele Norris first spoke with 13 voters — a mix of white, black and brown — in September. Two more voters joined the group in October. They spoke with the voters again after Barack Obama's election as the first black president.

Read A Personal Essay

Michele Norris, who is black, describes why this election year "drudged up some very strange and potent emotions" for her. Read her essay.

Hesitation, hope and fear have all emerged during NPR's conversations with voters on the role of race in everyday life and during the presidential campaign.

The discussions, involving a diverse panel of voters in York, Pa., have affected how the participants saw the election — and each other. And with Obama's election as the nation's first black president, there are new questions about the next chapter in American politics.

Sarah Yacoviello, a young white mother who voted for Republican John McCain, says her experiences in the discussion group have allowed her to put herself in someone else's shoes for the first time in her life.

"Even as I go to the grocery store, or walk down the street, I think about what it's like to be an African-American," she says. "And I think that's what's played into my joy over this election. Ordinarily I wouldn't be joyous — I'm an enthusiastic conservative and I wouldn't have been joyous. But for some reason, at this point I am."

While Yacoviello says she better understands what Obama's victory means after these chats, Cal Weary wonders if the world sees him in a new way. Weary is an African-American high school drama teacher. He says he wonders how others view him when he's driving from his suburban neighborhood to his job in downtown York.

"When I am on my way, the people who I pass mostly in my car are white, and sometimes I wonder, what are they thinking when they see me?" Weary says. "Do they think that I'm pulling out in front of their car because now I think that I can get away with it? Or are they realizing that I am just a jerk when I drive? I'm hoping that I'm not adding to any anxiety they might be feeling, since where I live, basically [everyone] voted for McCain."

The New Questions

Beyond these voters' changing perceptions, the reality is that in January, a black family is moving into the White House.

  • Will that diffuse or ignite racial tensions?
  • Will a black president from a big city face new opportunities or new obstacles?
  • Will a black president have to tread more carefully than a white president?

Margie Orr, who is black and works for a civil rights organization, says she doesn't think Obama will have to be more careful about how he talks about race and his agenda, because he didn't have to during his campaign.

"I think people who have stood by him during the elections and who have actually voted him in are going to stand with him through the duration," Orr says. "I think they will work with Obama in trying to make these changes. And so what if he leans more toward getting things solved for blacks — isn't it about time?"

On that score, some of the participants warned that Obama might confront a political irony. Republican attorney Jeff Lobach, who is white, says a black president can't show favoritism toward blacks.

"It might be more difficult for Obama to carry out that agenda because of his race, and his being on the liberal side of the spectrum," Lobach says. "I think it might be a little harder for someone who might be seen as pursuing the agenda of a minority group. And if there is a perception of a minority agenda at work — which I don't think is going to happen, but if that were to occur — I think he would lose political support."

As far as what political agenda he means, Lobach says he isn't sure, but says maybe an aggressive affirmative action program. But while Lobach talks about affirmative action, across the room, Nancy Snyder, who is also white, shakes her head.

"I think even if a white president pushed affirmative action now, you just hear so much white anger about affirmative action that I think is extremely ungrounded and not mindful of history, of education and of opportunity," she says. "But I'm sorry to say that I think if you if you take a black president who pushes affirmative action, the white anger backlash would just be unbelievable."

Lobach says it would be easier for a white person to lead the charge on that issue.

"I mean that's not fair, but that's how it is, I think," he says.

"Bush makes a mistake and he's just considered stupid," Snyder says. "Unfortunately, Barack Obama makes a mistake and he's black and stupid. And it's not the same in the white world."

Race As An Obstacle

And what about reaction to Obama's win by people who are racist? Weary, a Republican who voted for Obama, says that after the election, he went online to look at the hate Web sites, and he was surprised at what he found.

"Interestingly enough, I found a lot of sentiment on there from these white supremacists actually backing Obama," Weary says. "Crazy, right? Their viewpoint is that a black president is going to have to do more for white people, or for 'white agendas,' because he's going to have to prove that he's not just there for black people."

Michael Segarra is irked by the talk of racial obstacles. Segarra, a Latino real estate agent, says he believes that the other voters in the group were underestimating the American people. Segarra says he does not believe Obama got elected because of white or black issues.

"He got elected because we're in real economical trouble," Segarra says. "So long as he takes care of it, he's not going to have an issue four years from now. I think we're underestimating him and America itself as to putting the true issues ahead of the petty race issues that we have."

Weary disagrees.

"You can't just say it's a petty race issue and pretend it's not still there," he says. "I hope you're right and I hope I'm wrong. ... But I will say this: Racism is not a petty little issue."

He adds: "But if he fixes that economy, it will be less of one. He fixes that economy, he's going to have people who never thought they would say the name Obama with a smile on their face going, 'Yeah." Because when it comes to money, green outweighs black or white."

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