Voters Confront Race And Politics In York, Pa. Morning Edition and All Things Considered traveled to York, Pa., for a series of conversations with residents about race. The goal? To dig a little bit deeper than election polls about race and its role in the 2008 election.
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The Morning Edition Conversation With York Voters

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Voters Confront Race And Politics In York, Pa.

The Morning Edition Conversation With York Voters

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And in this part of the program we're joined by a voice you normally hear at the end of the day, Michele Norris of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Welcome.

MICHELE NORRIS: Good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: She's here because we've both been listening to people try something that you might find daunting.

NORRIS: They agreed to answer our questions about race and each other's questions about race, and they did this in a room filled with people of all kinds of racial backgrounds.

INSKEEP: What are the occasions, if any, when you become aware of your race?

MONTAGNE: Right now.


NORRIS: Are you comfortable with that?


MONTAGNE: It's a little uncomfortable.

NORRIS: Sarah Yacoviello is part of a group of voters we assembled. They all live in York, Pennsylvania.

INSKEEP: We traveled to this city together because it's in a presidential swing state, and also because it's working to overcome a history of racial tension. Because it's radio, we need to say that I'm white.

NORRIS: And I'm black. And the group we gathered loosely reflects the demographics of York. Speaking frankly before this group of voters - white, black and Latino - is what made Sarah Yacoviello uncomfortable.

MONTAGNE: I think that sounds strange but I want to be made uncomfortable because I don't pretend to understand the plight of African-American or Hispanic or any other nationality that's not my own.

NORRIS: Sarah Yacoviello sat next to Cal Weary. He's a high school drama teacher who says he's almost always aware of his race.

MONTAGNE: I'm not a blind black man. I do see what happens when I walk into certain stores - I do feel that. And I still feel the same anxiety I had when I was five or six years old and seen the difference between my white friends, when they walked into the store and how they were treated and how I was.

NORRIS: We're seated in a circle of armchairs and sofas at the Yorktown Hotel to dig a little bit deeper than election polls on that tricky subject of race.

INSKEEP: We're in the center of a city that John McCain and Barack Obama both visited in recent weeks but we took awhile before asking how our 13 Americans might vote. First, we wanted to hear them answer questions like this...

NORRIS: Is discrimination underestimated by white Americans?

U: Absolutely.

U: Yes.

NORRIS: Nancy.

MONTAGNE: Whenever we saw racism of any form we would always take a stand against it. But the place we had to start was ourselves. It was in us.

NORRIS: Nancy Snyder is white. She's adopted two children of different races.

MONTAGNE: I have this beautiful little 18-month-old African-American son whose feet were about this big, and you knew he was going to grow to be over six feet tall.

NORRIS: He had big feet, is what you're saying.


MONTAGNE: That's right. And I caught myself, and my husband challenged me on it, saying I figure I have about a decade to build a good rapport with him. And my husband said to me, would you ever say that if he were white? And I...

INSKEEP: The implication being that...

MONTAGNE: The implication...

INSKEEP: ...if he didn't build a good rapport then...

MONTAGNE: That I'm afraid, I was afraid of African-American men when they got to a certain height.

NORRIS: Is there anyone else in the room that has had to confront that in themselves? Driving down a street in York, seeing black men on a corner?


NORRIS: Now, this is interesting. You're...

INSKEEP: (Unintelligible) black man that's raising his hand.

MONTAGNE: I'll be completely honest about it.

INSKEEP: That's Cal Weary, the high school drama teacher. He says he changed when attending an almost all-white prep school.

MONTAGNE: I had a fear of black males because I was mimicking the fears that these people who I went to school with had.

NORRIS: You were afraid of men who looked just like you.

MONTAGNE: Right. Well, now I'm not, but I'm saying...


MONTAGNE: ...I am the large black man that you would've feared coming to your door.

INSKEEP: That remark prompted a response from Michael Smith, the large black man sitting across the room.

MONTAGNE: A large black man has to be friendly. You know, they like a large, black friendly man, you know what I mean?



NORRIS: I just want to flip the question. Do black people make too much of discrimination?

MONTAGNE: I think some do, and I particularly see it, for some reason, in the younger generation.

NORRIS: Charlotte Bergdoll is white and she does business all over the city that spreads out beneath the windows of our hotel suite.

INSKEEP: Somewhere beyond York's Victorian church spires, factories make Harley Davidson motorcycles and York barbells. It's a vibrant city with many people on the move, and some of them rent apartments from Charlotte Bergdoll.

MONTAGNE: I see people who, even though they haven't put forth the effort that they need to, to save up the money to get an apartment or get the education to get the job they want, just expect that it's going to happen and that they think that the reason that it hasn't happened is because...

U: They didn't try.

MONTAGNE: I think it's because they didn't try, but very often they think it's because they are Hispanic or African-American.

INSKEEP: And if you told them they didn't have it together, they would basically act like you're a racist?

MONTAGNE: Uh-huh. Some, yeah.

NORRIS: Now, do you mind if we turn to the election? There's a question that pollsters often ask, and it goes something like this...

INSKEEP: Do you think America is ready to elect a black president?

NORRIS: Now, when that question is asked, what do you think the pollster is trying to get at?

MONTAGNE: I think the question is they just don't think a black person is smart enough.

INSKEEP: Margie Orr.

MONTAGNE: They just don't think a black person is smart enough.

MONTAGNE: This is Donald. I don't think there's a problem with a black man; I personally just don't think Obama's the right one.

NORRIS: Don Gettys is the constable, a former cop, and he's white.

MONTAGNE: For some reason, the media, they don't say anything bad about him when he does something wrong. It's never reported.

MONTAGNE: Of course the media is going to do that because this is history making.

MONTAGNE: But if you're going to go after one, you go after both.

MONTAGNE: But this is the first black man who's ever gotten to where he has gotten.

MONTAGNE: Margie, should we then excuse any shortcomings because of what you just admitted? You said that...

NORRIS: Sarah Yacoviello is the white voter who told us she wanted to be in an uncomfortable discussion, and now she is.

MONTAGNE: You said this is history making, so should we excuse, you know, failures on his part? When we know, I mean, he's a human - they are.

MONTAGNE: It isn't excusing anything; they're just reporting the news.

MONTAGNE: And since we started off with race...

INSKEEP: Michael Smith, one of the black men in the room, says that when people talk about the media's failings, he hears white fear.

MONTAGNE: Blacks getting back at what America has done to them. That's the fear. I mean, it's not the context of this man's character. You're looking for something. You're looking, you're looking, you're looking, you're looking for something - it's got to be something. And you say, well, the media isn't finding it for me. So they're giving him a fair ride because they ain't dug nothing out of him yet.

INSKEEP: I wonder if that suggests something about our selection of a president, or a vice president for that matter, that it's hard to make a judgment on the objective facts and people end up making decisions based on their, I want to say, tribal beliefs. Does anybody thinks that a proper suggestion?

MONTAGNE: If you subtract Obama's color...

NORRIS: Drama teacher Cal Weary.

MONTAGNE: That's really the scary part, is that no longer will you be able to come out and find a group of people who are all these separate pieces. And every time that we cross those racial barriers and we have a white guy who can dunk and a black guy who's the president, we're starting to mix together.


MONTAGNE: But we're seeing that.

NORRIS: We're listening to 13 American voters - black, white and Latino - talk about race and the election. Our discussion continues this afternoon on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

INSKEEP: Michele and I will ask voters how they developed such different views. Some still believe Barack Obama is a Muslim.

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