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Changing Perspectives On Race, Politics In York, Pa.

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Changing Perspectives On Race, Politics In York, Pa.

Changing Perspectives On Race, Politics In York, Pa.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris joined once again by Steve Inskeep, the host who normally greets us at the top of the day. Glad to have you back, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

I'm glad to be here. And of course, as many of our listeners know, Michele and I have been talking together about race and politics with a diverse group of people from York, Pennsylvania. This week we met for the third time with more than a dozen people, white, black, Latino and South Asian and, for the record, I'm white.

NORRIS: And I'm black. And when we visited York this week, we followed a now familiar routine. We sat down to dinner, we had dessert and a three-hour conversation in a comfy hotel suite. Throughout these chats, we've talked about the role of race in everyday life and in the campaign. These are candid conversations that have affected how these voters see the election and each other.

INSKEEP: One person who says she's changed is Sarah Yacoviello, who is a young white mother.

BLOCK: For the first time in my life I really feel like I've really put myself in someone else's shoes. And 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. 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.

INSKEEP: She says she's joyous even though she voted for John McCain. She says, she better understands what Barack Obama's victory means after these chats.

NORRIS: What it means for someone like Cal Weary, he's a black high school drama teacher, who now wonders if the world sees him in a new way, a thought that crosses his mind while driving from his suburban neighborhood to his job in downtown York.

BLOCK: Maybe I'm imagining it. But I feel like now, sometimes that I'm on my way to work the people who I pass mostly in my car are white, and sometimes I wonder what are they thinking when they see me. Do they think that I'm pulling out in front of their car because now I think that I can get away with it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Or do they realize 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 my - since where I live basically voted for McCain.

INSKEEP: Beyond some of our voters' changing perceptions, there is a reality, and that reality is that, come January, a black family is moving into the White House. It's a new chapter for America that raises new questions.

NORRIS: Will that diffuse or ignite racial tensions?

INSKEEP: Will a black president from a big city face new opportunities or new obstacles?

NORRIS: And this question.

INSKEEP: Do you think an African-American president is going to have to tread more carefully than a white president might have to?

BLOCK: Margie here. I don't actually think he's going to have a hard time with it, because the election has shown that.

INSKEEP: That's Margie Orr, she's black and works for a civil rights organization.

BLOCK: I mean, 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. I think they are going to 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?

INSKEEP: That's one view, but some of our voters warned that Obama might confront a political irony.

NORRIS: And here it is. Republican attorney Jeff Lobach, who is white, says a black president can't show favoritism toward blacks.

BLOCK: If there's a perception that there's a minority agenda at work, which I don't think is going to happen, but if that were to occur I think he'd lose political support.

NORRIS: What would be an example of a minority agenda?

BLOCK: I just coined that term so I don't really know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: But - well, something like an aggressive affirmative action program that require an employer to.

INSKEEP: As Jeff Lobach talks about affirmative action, a white voter across the room, Nancy Snyder, shakes her head

BLOCK: Nancy here. I think even if a white president pushed affirmative action now, I mean, you'd 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. But I'm sorry to say that I think if you take a black president who pushes affirmative action, the white anger backlash would just be unbelievable.

BLOCK: It would be difficult either way, but it would be easier for a white president to lead the charge on that.

BLOCK: Anything.

BLOCK: I mean that's not fair, but that's how it is, I think.

BLOCK: Right, Bush makes a mistake and he's just considered stupid.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Unfortunately, Obama makes a mistake and he's considered black and stupid, and it's not the same in the white world.

BLOCK: Oh, it's kind of interesting, after the election I went online and, this is going to sound crazy to everybody, but I started looking up the hate Web sites.

NORRIS: The person looking at these websites is a black man. The drama teacher, Cal Weary, who, by the way, is a Republican who this time voted for Barack Obama.

BLOCK: Interestingly enough, I found a lot of sentiment on there from these white supremacists actually back - you're not going to believe, backing Obama. Crazy, right? Their viewpoint was that if you have black president, that black president is going to have to do more things for white people, or for white agendas, quote unquote "white agendas," because he's going to have to prove that he's not just there for black people.

BLOCK: I really believe that we are underestimating America.

NORRIS: That's Michael Segarra. He's a real estate agent, a Latino. And he's irked by all this talk about racial obstacles.

BLOCK: We are underestimating America and Barack Obama, thinking that he got elected because of white issues or black issues. He got elected because we're in real economical trouble. As 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 before this petty race issues that we have.

BLOCK: You can't just say it's a petty race issue and pretend that it's not still there. I hope you're right and I hope I'm wrong. I hope that someday when I'm 80 years - well, 60 - 60 years old, literally, there's a newspaper ad that says, finally no more racism. It's true. And it's true, and I'm praying for it, I hope it happens. But what I will see is this, racism is not a petty little issue. Racism is a real issue. Otherwise, none of us would be sitting in this room right now. None of us would be wondering about these things, about why we might be catching a hairy eye or two when we go somewhere. For those who worry about it, it's not a petty issue, it's a real issue. But if he fixes that economy, it will be less of one. It'll be less of one.

BLOCK: He won't have any trouble. I mean, this.

BLOCK: Fix 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, and it's not - because when it comes to money, green outweighs black and white.

BLOCK: It's the color green we're all worried about, not white or black.

INSKEEP: Some of the colors that were discussed by a group of voters in a hotel suite in York, Pennsylvania. We came here more than once hoping that given time, people would be honest about their views on race and politics in America.

NORRIS: They took the bait.

BLOCK: We have had conversations here that we do not have with people we see every single day, I guarantee you. I've talked to you about things. I haven't talked to you even my family members about.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

INSKEEP: And even as our final conversation ends, people keep talking. You'd think there would be nothing more to say, but people stand around a few minutes more, they are exchanging phone numbers.

NORRIS: They're hanging around. They're eating cake. We get the feeling that even without the two of us these conversations will continue, as the first black president prepares to take the oath of office. And you could be part of that conversation online. Visit our website at npr.org.

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