York Voters Untangle Rhetoric On Race Who is Joe Six-Pack? Is he a white guy or a brown-skinned immigrant? What does "Country First" mean? A group of 15 voters — black, white and brown — from York, Pa., help decode the language and imagery used by the campaigns.

York Voters Untangle Rhetoric On Race

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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, joined this morning by our colleague Michele Norris. Welcome back to the program.


Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: She's host of our afternoon news magazine, All Things Considered. And we've been listening together to voters as they talk about race and the election. For the record, I'm white.

NORRIS: And I'm black. And we've assembled 15 voters, black, white, Latino and South Asian.

INSKEEP: That makes them as diverse as York, Pennsylvania, the city where we've now met them twice. We had dinner together this week.


INSKEEP: We've circled the chairs in a hotel suite.

OK: Do you want this seat? Do you want me to take the sofa? OK.

INSKEEP: If we'd turned on the TV in the corner, we'd likely have seen campaign ads.

NORRIS: Pennsylvania is a battleground state. And our group is helping decode language in the presidential campaign. That requires decoding some language of their daily lives.

INSKEEP: Do you put a label on yourself?

JAZMIN BYERS: Interesting question.

NORRIS: Especially interesting for Jazmin Byers, a woman with curly hair and green eyes. She's half black and half white.

BYERS: You know, sometimes when you're filling out applications for college, or just for a job, or how do I want to be identified or perceived? And sometimes, you wonder would it benefit me to maybe put - select African-American only. Well, then, I'm like what that's not really truly who I am. So a lot of times, I find myself selecting Other.

INSKEEP: To some degree, you get to make a choice.

BYERS: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Which brings to mind Barack Obama's choices. If asked directly, the Democrat says he's black. Some of his ads display his white mother and grandparents.

NORRIS: And so the question is, does that make a difference in how he is received or accepted or maybe rejected by voters as they've gone through this very long election season?

MARIBEL BURGOS: I understand his world.

INSKEEP: Maribel Burgos, who's Puerto Rican, says she understands because it's her world, too.

BURGOS: I'm white in color, but I'm Latina in heart and blood.

NORRIS: Which makes her a minority, but she says not so threatening.

BURGOS: On paper, they need to be hiring minorities. I am Latina, but when I walk in to a place, they automatically say, "She looks white. She's one of us. " And I get hired, so I use it both ways. And it's a sad world, but it is reality.

MARGIE ORR: We come in so many hues, I mean, I, myself, my father was a light-skinned black man. My mother was a dark-skinned black woman.

INSKEEP: Margie Orr works as a receptionist.

NORRIS: It goes back to really the skin coloring because I really don't think Barack Obama would have gotten as far as he has if his skin coloring was dark.

SARAH YACOVIELLO: I just have a question, and I don't have an answer for it necessarily. But nobody has talked about why.

NORRIS: The question comes from Sarah Yacoviello. She's white, conservative and expecting her second child.

YACOVIELLO: Is it because that a lighter-skinned black man looks more white, looks more Caucasian? I was just wondering.

CALVIN WEARY: It's not just that they look more white, it's that in this country, if you are of a lighter hue, it probably means that you are mixed with white blood.

INSKEEP: Calvin Weary is a dark-skinned man and a high school drama teacher.

WEARY: The thing is, is when you talk about a Barack Obama where they show you these pictures of his white family and who he grew up with, what it's basically saying to the American people is, don't worry. You don't have to worry about him doing these things that you might think he might do that comes from this African-American culture.

INSKEEP: Before decoding more of the campaign, we should explain some things. Some people of color say they have a complicated relationship to their country.

NORRIS: Take Margie Orr. She's not the kind of person who hangs a flag outside her door.

NORRIS: I'm proud of America, but I'm not there putting a flag on my house.

INSKEEP: Why not?

NORRIS: I don't know. Maybe it's because when the United States shows me that I'm of totally - a total equal person, then maybe I will put a flag out on my property.

INSKEEP: As Margie Orr suggests, America has sometimes excluded African-Americans. Now a black man is seeking to lead America.

NORRIS: And with that in mind, consider some campaign language about America and patriotism.

INSKEEP: John McCain has a slogan that was used very often in the convention, has been used very often since. Two words, 'Country First.' Has anybody heard that?


INSKEEP: Country first? Take a crack at it for me. Your view matters because they're appealing to you. How does that phrase, 'Country First,' distinguish John McCain from his opponent?

JEFF LOBACH: Well, on this specific one I think he's trying to say three things.

NORRIS: Jeff Lobach is a lawyer. He's white and he supports John McCain.

LOBACH: First, he's trying to remind the voters about how he's lived his life and especially the showcase experience of the POW time. I think he's also - he has a whole litany of things that come after country. One of them is party. And I think, he is trying to make that statement and that he has the history of bipartisanship too, reaching across the aisle. And those things, I think, are admirable and good tactics. Perhaps less admirable is, I think, he is using it to raise questions about whether his opponent also puts his country first.

INSKEEP: You are saying that as a McCain supporter, that you see not the only message there but one of the messages - hey, Barack Obama is less patriotic than our guy.

LOBACH: I do think that's the intention and I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets that sense.

INSKEEP: Leah Moreland, what do you think?

LEAH MORELAND: I think McCain is much more patriotic than Barack Obama.

INSKEEP: Leah Moreland has been listening to conservative media claims about Obama's religion, about his years overseas, about his links to a 1960s radical, Bill Ayers.

NORRIS: Ayers was featured in a speech by vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. We listened to some tape of what Palin said about Obama.

SARAH PALIN: Now, this is not a man who sees America as you and I see America. We see America as a force for good in this world.


PALIN: We see an America of exceptionalism. Yes, U.S.A., U.S.A.


INSKEEP: When we play that tape, it got Charlotte Bergdoll, an undecided voter, wondering about the "we" who see America in a certain way.

CHARLOTTE BERGDOLL: I don't like that word we.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah!

BERGDOLL: Who's we? Does she mean Republicans?

YACOVIELLO: Probably her party base, I would assume.

BERGDOLL: I'm assuming but...

INSKEEP: Does she mean you?

BERGDOLL: She should have said I.

INSKEEP: There is this question of who's we. Sarah Palin has defined who we is. She's said I'm speaking for all the Joe Six-Packs out there. When you hear the phrase Joe Six-Pack, who is that? Who do you imagine?

MONTAGNE: A common everyday working man. Listening to his country music.


Unidentified Man #2: Country first.


INSKEEP: Then a man named Mohammad Khan speaks up.

NORRIS: He is an immigrant from Bangladesh. He owns a diner with a giant American flag painted on the outside of the building.

MOHAMMAD KHAN: Joe Six-Pack is people just like me - work every day, pay their taxes. But she is not talking for me.

INSKEEP: In some people's minds, Joe Six-Pack is a white guy. Anybody else thinks so?

LOBACH: Yeah, that's a white man. That's what she meant.

INSKEEP: Blanche, go ahead actually. You've been waiting.

BLANCHE HAKE: As soon as I heard her say that, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

NORRIS: That's Blanche Hake, a retired teacher.

HAKE: When I hear Joe Six-Pack, I think of the hunter and his gun and his dog, and that's a definite white man out in the countryside. And I have a son like that who is the Joe Six-Pack.

ORR: The gist of it is that the white man is the hard worker.

INSKEEP: Margie Orr.

NORRIS: The others are lazy. They don't work as hard. So that's where the Joe Six-Pack comes in. He's a hardworking white man.

NORRIS: This tour of language and its meanings doesn't seem to surprise one member of our group, that drama teacher, Cal Weary.

INSKEEP: He voted twice for President Bush and now supports Barack Obama.

WEARY: This is a political battle. It's a battle. And short of these guys sitting in a pit with socks and stones, hitting each other, and whoever comes out of it wins, this is - they're going to play. They are going to tug at our heart strings, they are going to tug at our emotions, they're going to tug at our primal fears of each other because each of them believes that they are the one who could do the best job for this country and they'll do whatever they need to do to get there, short of something illegal.

INSKEEP: Talk to this group of voters in York, PA, and you do hear the primal fears that Cal Weary mentioned.

NORRIS: And we'll explore those fears when our conversation on race continues this afternoon on All Things Considered.

INSKEEP: I feel if we put Obama in the White House, there will be chaos.

INSKEEP: You can read more on our conversations in York at npr.org. It's Morning Edition from NPR News.

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