Race Remains Strong Issue in Presidential Bid Though a tough subject for many Americans, race finds its way into the presidential campaign, sometimes in ugly ways. NPR organized an ongoing series of discussions about race and the campaign with a group of black, white, Latino and South Asian voters in York, Pennsylvania.
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Race Remains Strong Issue in Presidential Bid

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Race Remains Strong Issue in Presidential Bid

Race Remains Strong Issue in Presidential Bid

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Now we're going to go to Pennsylvania. On this program and others, Michele, we've talked a lot about the whole issue of race as a potential issue in the campaign, as part of American culture. I think that a lot of people assume this is primarily a Southern phenomenon. We've been talking about that. But this election has underscored that this crosses all kinds of lines. To that end, NPR has organized an ongoing series of discussions about race in the campaign with a diverse group of voters in York, Pennsylvania. These conversations have been led by Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep and by you, All Things Considered co-host Michele Norris, and I'm so happy to have you here in the studio with us.

MICHELE NORRIS: I'm so happy to be here with you.

MARTIN: Welcome. Who are these voters that you've been speaking with?

NORRIS: They're a cross-section of voters. As you said, they're diverse. They're - we started with 13. The group has grown to 15 voters now. They are black, white, Latino and South Asian. They live inside the city and outside the city. Some are older. There are a couple of retirees. There's an attorney. There's a real-estate agent. There is a retired cop. There is a student. There is a drama teacher. And they really - we tried very hard to make sure that they represented a cross-section of the people that you'd find in your - the attitudes that you probably experience if you spent time talking to people in York.

And they're - we thought we had selected this random group, I mean, because York is this mid-sized city. We got them into the room and we had dinner with them. Dinner was sort of part of the equation here, that we'd sit on and have this delicious dinner and feed them a lot of carbohydrates and maybe that would get them comfortable. And we realized that when they sat down, that there are all kinds of connections. They were tethered to each other in all kinds of interesting ways, through school, through community groups. There's one man who remembered the retired cop used to come and speak to his school, so...

MARTIN: That's interesting. Hold on one second - today All Things Considered is airing the second York conversation. The first of these took place in September. I just want to play a short clip, to talk - I want to ask you about - how you got people to really open up. Let's play it.

(Soundbite of NPR's All Things Considered)

Ms. LEAH MORELAND (Resident, York, Pennsylvania): 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 reverse.

MARTIN: Now, what was that like in the room when these comments - and how did you get people to open up like that?

NORRIS: And that was Leah Moreland that you just heard. She's white. She's a widow. She's in her 70s. And that happened in three of our conversations. We sat in the room. We had dinner. We sat down. We talked for three and a half hours, and that was what we called the ninth inning. And in our first convention when we went to York in September, same thing happened. Actually, same person, Leah, at that time, expressed her fear that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim - happened in the third hour of the conversation.

People were surprisingly willing to take on this very difficult topic, but we found that it was like peeling an onion or an artichoke. The longer we spent time with them, the more they walked out on that plank. And that was the lesson for me as a journalist, because, Michel, you know that we often talk to people for 20 minutes, maybe half hour, maybe 40 minutes. When it comes to a difficult subject like this, sometimes it takes a lot of time to really walk through that minefield and allow people to think out loud and to get to that space where they will say something like this.

It took a lot - this was a very offensive statement to a lot of people in the room, what Leah Moreland was saying, and she went on to say that she was, you know, concerned about what would happen if Barack Obama was elected. It took a lot of courage, but we had to create a space where she could say something like that. And in the room, there were - I mean, people were obviously, you know, offended, and then the conversation really got interesting because it started to ricochet around the room.

MARTIN: How did it end?

NORRIS: It ended with - there was one woman in particular - and I was sitting in between these two women - Leah's here, and Margie Orr, who is a black woman - she's a retired receptionist - two retirees talking to each other. Said Margie here, I just have to ask you a question. What is it that you were afraid of? And two of them had to, you know, really sort of went at it. At the end of the night, however, we had dessert for them waiting, and they were lined up to have this cake, this apricot filling. And Margie and Leah are standing there arm in arm. So, they disagreed with each other during the course of the conversation, but it's clear that they respected each other at the end, and that made me feel good because I thought, this conversation is going to continue.

MARTIN: It made me feel that they wanted to understand each other.

NORRIS: Yes. They didn't necessarily change each other's mind, but it was important that Leah heard Margie and that Margie heard Leah.

MARTIN: These conversations, as you just mentioned, took hours, and clearly, we're not going to be able to hear all of this on your reports on either on Morning Edition or All Things Considered. Was there something that got left on the cutting-room floor that you just really wish listeners could hear?

NORRIS: The one thing that I wish we could get more of is how the conversations evolved, how their thought process evolved. It harkens back to the conversation that you and Ken were having, for instance. When we first sat down with these voters, it was in September. It was right after the convention. Sarah Palin had just been introduced, and many of them have very, very different views of Sarah Palin in that intervening seven weeks.

MARTIN: Do you think that - this is - I'm asking you to speculate, so unfair for a journalist and we only have about a minute left - but do you think that these - any of these voters' opinions changed because they had these conversations together?

NORRIS: I don't know if their opinions changed. I think their horizons broadened. I'm not sure that we - that someone was left thinking, oh, I think differently about black people. They maybe thought differently about themselves and their lives. I mean, white people in the room, for instance, said I never think much about race, and it was clear to them that black people or people of color - Latinos, South Asians - think about it all the time.

MARTIN: That's fascinating. All Things Considered co-host Michele Norris joined us here in our Washington studios. As I said, you can hear previous York, Pennsylvania, conservations on race at our website, npr.org. And we will hear a report tonight on All Things Considered. Michele, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you, Ken Rudin.

NORRIS: Thanks for having us.

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