This is the fourth 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 in September. This time around, they added two more to the group. They plan to meet again with the voters — a mix of white, black and brown — from this swing state after the election.
Michele Norris writes about why she wanted to explore the issue of race in this presidential election and why NPR chose York, Pa.
Steve Inskeep finds that blacks seem to speak more comfortably about race than whites. He asks: "Whether we are white or black, do we really know ourselves?"
How would the country be different if led by a black man? If Barack Obama loses to John McCain, how will people react?
NPR assembled a group of 15 voters from York, Pa., to talk about race and the presidential contest in an effort to go deeper than the election polls.
And the conversation jumped beyond the election. Many of the assembled voters — who were black, white, Latino and South Asian — expressed concern about what could happen regardless of which candidate is elected president.
"No matter how this election turns out, I don't think this country will ever be the same again," says Blanche Hake, a retired school teacher who is white and is voting for Obama.
When asked how the country would be different if Obama were elected as president, Hake said: "I would think black people themselves and ... the children in the schools, they would have a model to follow."
Leah Moreland had a much different answer. Moreland sat a few feet away from Hake; the two women are related through marriage. Moreland is supporting McCain.
"I don't want to sound racist, and I'm not racist," Moreland says. "But I feel if we put Obama in the White House, there will be chaos. I feel a lot of black people are going to feel it's payback time. And I made the statement, I said, 'You know, at one time the black man had to step off the sidewalk when a white person came down the sidewalk.' And I feel it's going to be somewhat reversed. I really feel it's going to get somewhat nasty."
Moreland says she doesn't think all black people will "want payback." "I'm not talking about you, and I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the people that are out on the street looking for trouble. Putting a black man in the White House — and if he gets there, he gets there; I'm going to live under his presidency and everything. And I'm still going to be friends with anybody black that wants to be my friend and everything. But I really feel there's going to be a time of adjustment. I really feel it. I hope I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong."
Michael Smith, a black man, sat across the room with his arms folded tightly across his chest. He cocked his head and slowly raised a pointer finger in the air.
"I really understand what you're saying," he says. "I think what you're referring to as fear is just that change. The fact that we would be happy or excited, exuberant, motivated, is we're expressionable people."
But Moreland seemed to be referring to a different type of emotional display. Smith was talking about celebration: cheering, dancing in the streets, high fives. Moreland was talking about chaos: violence, broken windows, shoving people off sidewalks.
Cal Weary, a 32-year-old drama teacher, says he's worried about white resentment if Obama wins. Weary is a black Republican who voted twice for George W. Bush. This year, he's supporting Obama.
"I think there's more fear if you're really afraid of something bad happening. I hate to say this, but let [Obama] not win," Weary says.
And there is another set of fears for Weary: He says that he's "more afraid of the Joe Six-Packs looking for payback after Barack Obama wins the presidential election."
Weary says that if Obama loses the election, there will also be African-Americans who will not accept that result as legitimate.
"I guarantee it," Weary says. "I think even the black people who weren't that involved would have that disenfranchised feeling of, 'We got so close, and now we didn't get it, and now I'm angry about it.'"
Margie Orr, who is black, raised one more fear — a grim one that's been whispered since Obama became a serious contender for the White House.
"You know what I am most afraid of? I am most afraid of the rhetoric that's been going on at the McCain rallies," she says. "I'm afraid for Obama and his family for the things that have been said at those rallies. It's as though they want to bring out the skinheads, the [Ku Klux Klan], so they can kill this man.
"I'm afraid of the impact of what will happen here in these United States if Obama is murdered by a white person.," Orr says. "That's my fear. That's my fear. That should be your fear."
Although the voters are approaching the election with trepidation, there is also great anticipation. But no matter what happens Nov. 4, many of the York voters are concerned about Nov. 5.