ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Im Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And Im Michele Norris. Weve been asking if we can find racial fingerprints on the ballots well cast this November, and by racial fingerprint were referring to the personal experience, the individual racial experience we all carry into the voting booth.
Most voters say their decision between Barack Obama and John McCain is not based on race, but were trying to get at something more subtle than the standard questions in a poll. We wondered if the decision is not based so much on the candidates race but on the racial experience of the voter.
Ive been listening to voters describe their experience with MORNING EDITION host Steve Inskeep. Steve, welcome to this program.
STEVE INSKEEP: Glad to be here, Michele. As you know, earlier today on MORNING EDITION, we asked a group of 13 voters if America was ready for a black president.
NORRIS: This afternoon, those same 13 voters will tell us more about their lives and their racial identity and how they plan to vote, and it should be noted that Im black.
INSKEEP: And Im white, and our voters are black, white and Latino, which means theyre as diverse as the city in which they live. Its York, Pennsylvania, in a presidential swing state, and many of the voters told us this election has them thinking about race in new ways.
Mr. CAL WEARY (High School Drama Teacher): I dont know if I can see another old white man as president.
INSKEEP: Thats Cal Weary. Hes a black high-school drama teacher who voted for President Bush in the past two elections, and he knows that his declaration might sound harsh.
Mr. WEARY: 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 at as being the biggest lie. You tell everyone in the world that we have the greatest opportunities here. You tell them that anyone can start from shining shoes and become in charge of a Fortune 500 company, but then you say to the rest of the world, you say you could have everything but you cant live in the big white house.
NORRIS: Race is a complicated subject. We all know that, especially when discussed in a diverse setting, and our three-hour discussion was more difficult for some than others. There were lots of folded arms, nervous sighs, at times, confrontation.
Mr. DON GETTYS (Law Enforcement Officer): This is dumb. I dont think theres a problem with a black man. I personally just dont think Obamas the right one. He doesnt have the experience. He...
INSKEEP: Don Gettys is a law enforcement officer. Hes white, and his remark set off one of the black voters in the room, Margie Orr, a receptionist.
Ms. MARGIE ORR (Receptionist): Can I, can I this is Margie...
Mr. GETTYS: Sure.
Ms. ORR: And I dont see your name tag.
Mr. GETTYS: Don.
Ms. ORR: Don. Okay, my thing is, though, but what would make you think Palin would be okay? We know John McCain has medical problems. God forbid if this man is elected and this white female, so what youre saying is, though, the United States would rather see, as long as theyre white, they dont care if shes even a female, but as long as its a white person.
Mr. GETTYS: No, I dont think thats the case.
Ms. ORR: But she doesnt...
Mr. GETTYS: She has more executive experience than he does.
Ms. ORR: How do you figure that?
Mr. GETTYS: He was a community organizer. Nobodys ever told me what a community organizer is.
Ms. ORR: Then maybe, excuse me, maybe thats something then that you need to investigate.
NORRIS: To understand how or if race affects voting decisions, we first had to learn more about these voters experience with race, and we can begin with Margie and Don.
Mr. GETTYS: I cant recall anything that I, any privileges I got because I was white. I mean, I went to city schools, but I dont know of anything that I got because I was white that the black kids couldnt have gotten the same thing.
Ms. ORR: Back in 63, when I graduated, my family was the first black family who moved into the suburbs.
INSKEEP: Thats Margie Orr.
Ms. ORR: And we werent wanted there, of course, and the whites did everything they could to intimidate us, get us to move, but my parents were staunch-hearted people. We werent going to budge.
So of course, we stayed there. We endured it all, the break-ins, the house being messed up, you know, the whole nine yards, being called niggers.
NORRIS: Margie dabs at her eyes when questioning why diversity has to be enforced.
Ms. ORR: I mean, my parents taught me to love everybody, so Im saying but you have to be taught to love me? Thats hard for me to understand.
Ms. LEAH MORELAND (Former Factory Worker): This is Leah. I guess I grew up very sheltered. I really was totally unaware of prejudice.
NORRIS: Leah Moreland is a widow and former factory worker. She grew up on a farm.
Ms. MORELAND: And I lived at the end of the West Market Street bus line, and 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.
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 I mean, there was no prejudice in my home.
INSKEEP: Leah Morelands home area is still trying to move past a long history of racial tensions. Like many American cities, York, Pennsylvania suffered a race riot in the 1960s. It lasted 10 days.
These days, Yorks attorneys include Jeff Lobach. Hes white, and hes surprised by the intolerance he sees in York even today.
Mr. JEFF LOBACH (Attorney): White people are almost invariably shocked when they hear some of the things that African-Americans have to put up with. 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 now, and they are definitely treated differently by their peers.
NORRIS: How are they treated differently?
Mr. LOBACH: We have had incidents where white lawyers wouldnt shake the hand of a black lawyer.
NORRIS: After we heard their stories, we asked all the voters who they planned to back in November, and this is key. We also asked how their racial experience or identity, something we refer to as a cultural compass, factored into that decision.
INSKEEP: Remember Margie Orr? Shes the receptionist who still carries the scars of integration.
Ms. ORR: Im a Democrat, and Im going to vote for Obama, and one of my reasons is, is because he is black.
INSKEEP: Margie Orr said her vote for Obama is based on pride, but you also hear a touch of paranoia.
Ms. ORR: And I think hes qualified. And come on, lets face facts. This man is going to be wiretapped up to his eyeballs. Come on, people. Do you really think hes going to be put in office and they not keep an eye on him?
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
Ms. ORR: Be for real.
INSKEEP: What do you mean? Whos they? Whos they going to be...
Ms. ORR: Theyre going to watch this man whats that old saying goes like white on rice. Hes not going to be his own person, per se. Hes going to be screened to the max. Theyre not going to let him get away with anything.
INSKEEP: Whos they going to...
Ms. ORR: The white system. Thats who they are, okay?
NORRIS: Jeff Lobach, the attorney.
Mr. LOBACH: I think if Senator Obama is elected, its not going to be because hes an African American. I think we can all agree about that. If hes defeated, I hope its not because hes an African-American. We can probably all agree about that too.
NORRIS: He senses that change is in the air. Racial attitudes are shifting, including his own, but his allegiance to his party, thats still solid.
Mr. LOBACH: Im an enthusiastic supporter of McCain right now because I think this is his moment.
INSKEEP: And Leah Moreland, the woman who said she grew up sheltered from prejudice?
Ms. MORELAND: Right now, McCain is the man.
NORRIS: Party loyalty is also part of her decision, but her cultural compass also comes into play. She said her gut tells her not to trust Obama.
Ms. MORELAND: I look at Obama, and I have a question in my mind. 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, hes still alive.
INSKEEP: There may be many comments about that do you want to continue around the room?
NORRIS: Well, I want to continue around the room. I just want to well have a chance I just want to go around the room quickly, and well come back to that. But I have one very quick question for you. Barack Obama has said repeatedly, when asked this question, that he is not a Muslim and has never been a Muslim.
Ms. MORELAND: (Unintelligible) saying hes a liar.
NORRIS: Do you accept him at his word?
Ms. MORELAND: No. No. I really dont because I just theres something about him I dont trust.
NORRIS: You dont believe him?
Ms. MORELAND: I dont care how good a speaker he is, he just has not I just dont I just cant trust him.
INSKEEP: So at the end of the evening, we tallied up support for the candidates.
NORRIS: Well, we have seven white voters and we have six voters of color. The majority of the white voters are supporting John McCain. All of the people of color are supporting Barack Obama. What does that say? Coincidence, or is there something else at work?
Ms. CHARLOTTE BERGDOLL (Property Manager): This is Charlotte. I didnt I only heard one person even say or think that the reason that they were voting that way was because of race...
NORRIS: Property manager Charlotte Bergdoll, an undecided voter, didnt see a connection between race and political choice, and she wasnt alone.
INSKEEP: But after the voters spent a little more time debating that divide, again all of the voters of color behind Obama, most of the white voters behind John McCain, most came to a reluctant conclusion.
NORRIS: So the questions still on the floor, does race matter on a subconscious level?
Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.
Unidentified Woman #2: It does, apparently.
NORRIS: Apparently. But it was not apparent when we first asked voters if race was a factor in their decision.
INSKEEP: So that raises one last question. Just how much are we all aware of our own biases or our own fears?
NORRIS: Cal Weary, that black drama teacher, former Bush backer and current Obama supporter, says deep divisions on race, this groups and the countrys, might always be an obstacle.
Mr. WEARY: When someone asks a question like is America ready for a black president, theyre saying, has America forgotten what its done to black people, and have the black people forgotten what has been done to them? Is he going to go in there and be respected, because theyre still making comments like, oh, but hes so well-spoken, and oh, my goodness, you know, hes different than the rest, the same kind of thing that I grew up with, and I understand why theyre asking the question.
If you ask me if I think Americas ready for it, I dont think they are. But when are we ever ready for anything that is a radical change?
INSKEEP: The voices of voters in York, Pennsylvania. And were not done listening. Were going to head back to Pennsylvania next month to hear more.
NORRIS: And if you want to hear from this visit to York, go to npr.org. There, you can listen to our report from MORNING EDITION.