White PA Voters on Race in the Race After Sen. Barack Obama opened up a new conversation on race with his speech on Tuesday, political pundits are questioning how his message will resonate among Pennsylvanians, the next group of Democrats to vote in a primary. Four white voters from the state discuss their reactions.
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White PA Voters on Race in the Race

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White PA Voters on Race in the Race

White PA Voters on Race in the Race

White PA Voters on Race in the Race

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After Sen. Barack Obama opened up a new conversation on race with his speech on Tuesday, political pundits are questioning how his message will resonate among Pennsylvanians, the next group of Democrats to vote in a primary. Four white voters from the state discuss their reactions.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to switch gears now and continue our conversation about Senator Barack Obama's speech but with four Pennsylvania voters. Pennsylvania is the next step up in - the next state up in the Democratic contest. Their primary is just one month away. Many say Obama's speech was primarily intended for white voters, especially those from large urban areas where racial tensions persist. To talk about this, our guests are Rick Bloomingdale, he's the secretary treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, Burt Siegel, he's the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia, Connie Guy is president of Lancaster Country Democratic Women's Association, and Hannah Sassaman is the program director at the Prometheus Radio Project.

I want to thank you all for joining us.

Mr. RICHARD BLOOMINGDALE (Secretary-Treasurer, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO): Thank you.

Mr. BURT SIEGEL (Director, Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia): Thank you for having us.

Ms. HANNAH SASSAMAN (Program Director, Prometheus Radio Project): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: First, I'd like to ask how you all react to being called white voters. This is something that, you know, African-Americans, Latinos, are sort of used to. But Rick, how do you feel about that?

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: Well, you know, when I was called about to be on the show, it was - I've never been, and maybe I'm lucky I guess, but I've never been thrown into a category. And you now, it made me realize and think about what other voters who are not, you know, white working-class men have had to deal with. Folks have said, you know, well what are African-American voters are going to do, or what are Latino voters, or what are women voters going to do? So all of a sudden, I've got this new perspective about the, you know, I'm a group rather than just a regular guy who works and happens to be white. Now, I'm like a NASCAR dad, or a soccer mom, or some kind of voter group.

MARTIN: Interesting. Connie, what about you?

Ms. CONNIE GUY (President, Lancaster Country Democratic Women's Association): I've actually never looked at myself as a white voter or a woman voter. I am a Democratic voter.

MARTIN: OK.

Ms. GUY: Plain and simple.

MARTIN: I hear you. We're going to come back to you. Hannah, what about you? I just want to hear from everybody briefly on this. Hannah, what about you?

Ms. SASSAMAN: Well, I think that I'm used to being categorized all the time. I'm you know, in an extremely consumer-driven society. People want to sell me everything from, you know, online music, to cars, to houses. So I think that this is the first time that I've really married my sort of sense of being barraged by consumer messages with my choice and who I'm going to vote for. So it's a unique and fascinating experience.

MARTIN: Burt, what about you?

Mr. SIEGAL: Well, I think we all have multiple identities. I mean, I am white, and I am a voter, so I guess that does describe me. But there are a lot of things I look at. I'm a male. I'm Jewish. I'm over a certain age. I live in a big city. And somebody described me as a city voter, or a Jewish voter, or a male voter. Yeah, I'm those too. I am a white voter.

MARTIN: So I'd like to ask each of you how you feel about, Rick, this discussion about race. And we're going to take a short break in a minute, so I'm going to have to interrupt you. But if you just start us up by saying how did you feel about, react to, Senator Obama's speech?

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: Well, like a lot of workers, you know, I didn't have a chance to see the speech in its entirety. And I was only able to catch, you know, the snippets that were on the evening news, which unfortunately, from what I've heard, it was a terrific speech but so far I have not had a chance to see it all. Obviously, I was intrigued by it. I thought he did, you know, as he's a terrific speaker so, you know, I didn't expect anything less than very good. And he - I think he accomplished that.

But as to the issues that it brings up in terms of race, I think one of the earlier folks who was talking about it, you know, he has - a lot of people were just being introduced to Senator Obama. And you know, this introduction has now been tainted or changed by these incendiary comments by Reverend Wright, which I'm sure were taken out of context. But you know, it's unfortunate because…

MARTIN: It's an issue. I'm going to have to interrupt you.

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: OK.

MARTIN: We're going to come back in just a minute. We're talking with four Pennsylvania voters about Senator Barack Obama's speech on race, and our national conversation about race. We're going to continue this conversation after a short break. Stay with us.

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News.

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're continuing our conversation about Obama's speech on race. We're getting the perspective of some voters from Pennsylvania, particularly white voters. We're joined by Rick Bloomingdale of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, Burt Siegel of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Connie Guy of the Lancaster County Democratic Women's Association, and Hannah Sassaman of the Prometheus Radio Project.

Thank you all so much for staying with us. Rick, you were making a point before we interrupted you. But how do you feel about the, sort of the having to, or the whole conversation about race in this campaign? Necessary, important, something you'd just as soon do without?

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: I think it is necessary. But I think the vast majority of voters and the folks I talked to in the labor movement - they want to know where the candidates are right now on the economy, healthcare, pensions. I mean, that's what we want to talk about because that's what affects us as workers. Do we have to deal with the race issue? Absolutely. And you know, a lot of the men I talked to, the guys, you know, in the bars after work and stuff - I shouldn't, they told me not to mention too many bars. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm sure you were drinking lattes, but anyway. Go ahead.

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: That's right.

MARTIN: Juice.

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: They've had to deal with the fact that on a Democratic side - and they're so disgusted with the Republican economic policies that they are pretty much just looking at the Democratic side right now, has made them like well, I've got to either choose a woman or an African-American guy. And that's something new for us. You know, usually it's like, well where's the white guy? And you know, that's not - so this, all of this is new for us, having to deal with the possibility of a woman in the White House and an African-American in the White House.

You know, it's forced people to think about it, which mostly they wanted to think about, you know, who's going to finish first in the NCAA. And you know, is my pension OK? And you know, where am I going to go practice with my kids for softball or little league?

MARTIN: I hear you. Connie, what's your take on this?

Ms. GUY: Well, I think it's unfortunate that in this day and age, in 2008, that we have to have even a discussion about race and gender. You know, we have the most exciting campaign going on that I've ever seen in my lifetime. And we have two very fine candidates, very fine candidates. They're bright, and they bring a lot to the table. I think they both want what we as Democratic voters all want. It's just sad that there is - that this divide has come.

I think it's awful that senator Obama has even had to come out with this speech, and he said a lot of good things. I will tell you, I didn't hear it but I've read it. It's six pages long. It's a very good speech. And we did learn a lot about him. I just think that it's so sad that there are still people who question a man's or a woman's integrity.

I don't believe that Reverend Wright should have said the things that he did. I don't believe that they should be - that he or anyone for that matter should be preaching politics from the pulpit. It was uncalled for. But I think that it forced Senator Obama into having to come out and explain where his beliefs come from. And you know, he said something in his speech that I thought was - of all the things that he actually said in the speech, that I thought was truly profound was one small line, that these distractions will go on forever in any election. And it's because they're racing so hard to get to the top that people will question the slightest indifference about all of them. And I just think that's horrible that we have this racial divide or this gender divide.

MARTIN: Mmm hmm.

Ms. GUY: It just shouldn't be. It should not be. And I've told many of - and I have women in my women's group who, some are supporting Obama and some are supporting Senator Clinton. And one thing I've tried to stress to them is that it'll support your candidate, but let's not attack each other. Let's not call each other names and - I wear my Clinton pin. I'm supporting Hillary. I am. I believe she is the right candidate for this presidency. I think it's her time. I also believe that Senator Obama will be a good president one day. I think it's his time, but right now I think Senator Clinton...

MARTIN: You think it's her turn first? My turn first.

Ms. GUY: I think it's her turn first.

MARTIN: Burt Siegel, you know when Senator Joe Lieberman was on the Democratic ticket, there are people who kind of raised questions about the way, how his faith would affect the performance of his duties. I'd like to ask then, how you feel about this? Sort of that the conversation about race that has arisen as sort of consequence about this. Is it worthwhile?

Mr. SIEGEL: No, no, no, oh yeah! I think it's long overdue. I think no matter what we may hope, issues of race, and gender, and class, and ethnicity, still are very important discussions that we need to have. I mean, I've been a human relations professional for nearly over 30 years now and looking at what Senator Obama said, I heard part of the speech, but then I also read it, and it reads as well as it sounded, maybe even better. I was really impressed by his willingness to take on these really uncomfortable issues.

But at the same time you know there was a message. We all, I guess, will take one or two lines of the speech - I mean, he talks about the genius of America is that we can change, that we can improve. And he's made a point that we have and that we've come very far in race relations - we haven't come far enough. And whether he is elected president or not, I mean he's obviously a major player in shaping the thinking of Americans. And he also said that we have to listen to each other.

He said that African-Americans have to understand the sensibilities of white working class people. We have to understand what it feels like to be an immigrant or a refugee, and I don't think that was just rhetoric. I really think that number one, he believes that, and number two, I think there is a generation that is very excited about Senator Obama's campaign, who hopefully will also hear the message that we really need to pay attention to what every group thinks it has its own hurts. We need to pay a lot more attention to that.

MARTIN: Hannah, I wanted to ask you. On the one hand, you know Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said in an interview with the Washington Post editorial board that there are just some folks who aren't going to vote for a black guy, right? On the one hand, there are people, say, younger voters, who say gee, this whole race thing is so over. It's just so over. And I just wanted to - which of those things do you think is true and also, Hannah, I want to hear from you on this too.

Mr. SIEGEL: I have great admiration for our governor. I've known him well for many years, but he's not always right. You may remember Governor Rendell also predicted that Joe Lieberman would not be selected as the vice presidential nominee, because he was Jewish. And in fact, all research indicated that the fact that he was a man of strong faith, albeit Jewish, was not a detriment to the ticket at all. In fact, he probably strengthened that ticket.

Ms. SASSAMAN: Just to interrupt, I think that the question was for me, and I'd really love to just have a chance to answer it.

MARTIN: Sure.

Ms. SASSAMAN: So, I just really want to say, so a few people who are on this call like Rick and Connie, you guys, because you were working all day. As you brought up so eloquently, Rick, people didn't have a chance to see the speech. Like, what they had to rely on was the corporate media sort of digesting it on the evening news, putting headlines on the front page of the paper, and we've had to rely on how the media has digested not just this speech, but the entire race, to form our opinions. And as someone who's been really trying to work through the Prometheus Radio Project to build independent local voices around the country, I really have to applaud Senator Obama for being so brave to make a speech, which was due to be so deeply misunderstood by the corporate media.

What he ended up saying was many, many things, both about Reverend Wright, about the Trinity United Church of Christ, but also about the sense of race, and anger, and the flawed and beautiful institutions by which we have to try to heal generations of wounds in this country. By putting out a speech which requires nuance, which requires focus, which requires a couple of readings, which requires conversations at the dinner table, he stepped out of the news cycle and the sound bite sort of tenure of our election, to say something very brave, which is that we need a national conversation about race in this country. So I'm not as interested...

MARTIN: Do you think we do?

Ms. SASSAMAN: Very much so. Like, I'm someone who, you know, I grew up in a conservative Jewish family, and I'm living in downtown Philadelphia in an extremely racially diverse city. And the conversations about race are so tied with our class, are so tied with how we go to school, about healthcare in this country. And by Senator Obama putting that conversation on the table, he's saying that we can't solve it with one election.

The way that - what he's saying is - the thing that really resonated with me about the speech was not any of his rhetoric, so much as when he told the story about the young woman named Ashley who had been volunteering for his campaign down in Alabama, and it wasn't through any one statement or any one action that the community that she was working with was able to really find each other and find solidarity amongst itself. It was by people telling stories and having sort of an emotional sort of coming together about how race, class, the fight for jobs, the fight to raise our families, is a unified struggle in our country.

And you know, he said there is an elderly man who said I'm here because of Ashley, an elderly African-American man saying I'm here because I believe in the struggle that we are in together on this. And so that's really where we're at in this race.

MARTIN: Rick, can I bring you back in? You mentioned that your guys, as you put him, would really rather be talking about the economics and the war, presumably. Are they prepared to have this conversation? Is Ed Rendell right that they really, you know, are they prepared to vote for a black guy, if that's the case? And do they want to have this conversation? Are they prepared to have it, whether they want to have it or not?

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: I think they're prepared to have it. I don't think they wanted to have it. I mean we're all busy filling out our brackets, you know, for the NCAA tournament, and this, you know I don't mean to make light of this issue, or the seriousness of it, or that our folks aren't deep thinkers, because you know most working class folks are deep thinkers. And they think a lot about how life affects them, and you know, they're not philosophers, but certainly they are being forced to think about it, because as I said before, their world has been changed.

I mean there is not - I'll go back to it, they're so fed up with, you know, Bush and McCain being the same as Bush on the economic issues, and I have to tell you the war is sort of subsiding as a major issue, because folks are really worrying about the possibility of losing their home, their pensions. You know, everybody's been moved from defined benefit to defined contribution. The stock market's taken a hit. They look at their pension savings...

MARTIN: The foreclosure crisis...

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: The foreclosure crisis, which has not been as bad in Pennsylvania, thank God, but some other things. You know, folks are worried about losing their healthcare, about paying more for healthcare. That's the conversation they wanted to have. They wanted to find out from Senator Clinton and Senator Obama where they stood on those issues.

MARTIN: I hear you.

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: Now, they have to deal with this other - well you know, we have a woman running and we have an African-American guy, so now we have to deal with - get over that, those inherent things that they've never had to deal with before.

MARTIN: Connie, you were saying earlier that you regret that any of this has to be discussed, but now that it's on the table, what would you like to see going forward? What would you like to hear from these candidates going forward?

Ms. GUY: In particular, I would like to hear from both candidates their plans, their issues, or about the issues that are facing Americans today. And that's where they need to be focusing all of their attention. You know, it truly upsets me that the media stirs the pot. They are the ones who kick the dust. You know, they find these little snippets. It used to be that the media would tell us - newspapers, radios, TVs, they would tell us the facts and then Americans with a head on their shoulders would make good decisions about what they thought was best for them.

Now, we have to be distracted by arguments of, you know, is he black enough, is she woman enough. Does he have to get in touch with his feminine side? Does she have to get in touch with her black side? I mean this is - it's too much of a distraction from where we need to go.

MARTIN: I hear you.

Ms. GUY: We have to focus on the issues, and we have to hear their plan, and we have to make a good sound decision about who we each feel is the best candidate to be president.

MARTIN: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. This has been a good discussion, and perhaps we'll meet again and talk as we get closer to the primary. Rick Bloomingdale is the secretary treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. He happened to be in Washington, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington studios. Connie Guy is the president of the Lancaster County Democratic Women's Association. She joined us from Harrisburg. Burt Siegel is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia. He joined us by phone from Philadelphia. And Hannah Sassaman is the program director of the Prometheus Radio Project, and she was at WHYY in Philadelphia. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BLOOMINGDALE: Thank you.

Ms. GUY: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. SIEGEL: Thank you.

Ms. SASSAMAN: Thank you, Michel.

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