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by Tonyaa Weathersbee

The Race Card

(PNS) -- More than 40 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. had folks like the inhabitants of McKeesport, Pennsylvania pegged.

In his writings and speeches, the civil rights icon outlined how Jim Crow was used as political stratagem by aristocratic whites to suppress unity between poor whites and former slaves; of how it made their stomach rumblings more bearable as long as they didn't have to eat their meager meals next to a black person. It was a strategy that duped them into seeing black people as the enemy rather than the economic and political realities that were really keeping them down.

If comments from working-class whites like the McKeesport residents regarding Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama are any indication, shades of that strategy is still working.

And it's both sad and infuriating.

One resident, Edward Norgren, whose economic lifeline was cut when the steel mills near McKeesport were closed in the 1980s, told The Washington Post that he didn't intend to vote for Obama. But Norgren's reasons for not supporting him had nothing to do with any reason that could be considered remotely logical; that maybe Obama hadn't spent enough time in the Senate or that he hasn't been specific enough on solutions to the problems dogging working-class folks like himself.

His reasons were tinged in racism and ignorance.

Norgren said he didn't think that Obama was American (Newsflash: To run for president, one has to be born an American citizen.). He also said he didn't like Michelle's Obama's suggestion that she hadn't been proud of her country - a remark that right-wing media continues to spin out of proportion.

Another resident, Tim Hetrick, told the Post that he thinks Obama just wants to be president because he's black.

Someone please tell me: What behind did he pull that explanation out of?

Now, lest I be guilty of stereotyping, I have to say that I don't believe the views of Norgren and Hetrick reflect the views of all working-class white people. There are good reasons why white people -- and for that matter, many black people -- support Hillary Clinton over Obama, and those reasons may have nothing to do with race.

Yet when one turns to the next chapter -- the one that shows what happens if Obama is the Democratic nominee -- and you see racism written throughout it.

Both Norgren and Hetrick told the Post that if Obama is the nominee, they'll be voting for Republican John McCain in November. Similar views are also reflected in other polling data.

A Time magazine poll conducted April 2-6 among registered Pennsylvania Democrats showed that if the presidential election was between Clinton and McCain, Clinton would receive 68 percent of their vote, while McCain would receive 16 percent of their vote. But if the contest was between Obama and McCain, Obama would receive 56 percent of that Democratic vote, while McCain would receive 26 percent.

In other words, Clinton supporters are far less likely to support Obama if their candidate isn't the nominee than vice-versa.

And a chief part of that explanation, to me, has vestiges in Jim Crow.

It's true that while Jim Crow is largely associated with the South, Pennsylvania also has a similar history of racial animus. Colonial Pennsylvania was a slave-owning society that even attempted to control free blacks, and once blacks began to compete with whites for jobs after the Civil War, they suffered from a huge backlash from poor whites who feared being seen as equal to blacks.

So they drank some concoction akin to the Jim Crow Kool-Aid as well. And it seems that the aftertaste is lingering.

We know this because if working-class whites like Norgren and Hetrick are saying that they'd rather vote for McCain -- a man who plans to continue to drain the economic resources that they need to revitalize their impoverished former steel town for this useless Iraq War -- than Obama, we know this is about racism, not rationality.

And the fact that so many other Pennsylvania Democrats are willing to jump party lines to vote for someone who doesn't represent their economic self-interests rather than take a chance on a black man illustrates that old fears, and not new hopes, remain a potent persuader in this election season.

Overcoming those fears will likely be Obama's toughest challenge. All he can hope for is that come November, enough hopeful voters, both black and white, show up at the polls to cancel out the hateful ones.

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Albion Monitor   April 23, 2008   (

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