Saturday, April 5, 2008

Black and White: Obama in PA

This is a fascinating article. It's nicely written, and it makes some interesting points. Levittown, PA is near Trenton, NJ (9 miles), not many miles (23) northeast of Philly. Working class, thirty, forty years ago it had a plethora of industrial jobs: steel, 3M, Thiokol. Now there are less than 100 workers at the steel plant.

I was focused primarily on Levittown’s response to Obama. Here, after all, was a place that needed a big change, a new dream, which for many voters Obama — with his mixed race, international background, inspiring life story and his soaring rhetoric — represents.

The writer used to be a reporter in Philadelphia. He writes that this Levittown shared characteristics with the Levittown on Long Island.

"...on matters of race Levittown has a particularly shameful history. It was billed as “the most perfectly planned community in America,” and part of the plan was for it to be whites-only: 5,500 acres, stretching across three Pennsylvania townships and one borough, closed off to blacks."

So there is a lot of work to do in a community such as this one.
Meetings of Obama volunteers begin with what his professional field organizers call “relationship building.” Everyone talks about what brought them together and what they have in common, which, of course, is Obama.

The belief in Obama is fascinating: these people believe in Obama, and don't just support him. Of course, it is easy to understand the same is true for Hillary: some people believe in her.

Annunziata [a former politician who had once been council president in Bristol Township, one of Levittown’s four municipalities] had been a motel manager but is not currently working. He thought Obama needed to “touch people in the wallet” in Levittown, but he was not primarily attracted by detailed campaign proposals. At times, he sounded almost mesmerized. The very challenge that Obama faced in Levittown and similar places — winning the hearts and votes of people who may never have dreamed they would vote for a black man for president — is part of what entices Annunziata. “When he won Iowa, it touched my soul,” he said. “I was very emotional. I felt like we were moving toward what this country should be.”

The writer of the article, Michael Sokolove, writes: My parents moved to Levittown in 1955 from their one-bedroom Philadelphia apartment, even though my father’s first impression of the new suburb was distinctly negative. But Levittown was what my parents could afford.

He was born in 1956.

There were a few small black neighborhoods on the fringes of town, non-Levitt-built houses, and their children attended our schools, but not comfortably. Periodically, brawls broke out between white and black students, and I spent parts of my high-school years with police and police dogs stationed in our corridors to keep the races apart. The word “nigger” rolled off the tongues of many of my classmates, and sometimes I would object, which had no effect other than to give me an adolescent’s fleeting sense of superiority. I felt of Levittown — and apart from it. I was always among just a small handful of Jewish kids at my schools, and my father was the rare college-educated person on our side of town.

Here is a curious anecdote; I'm amazed by it. “I like him — how do you say his name?” Carol Bianchini, a home health aide, said. “I like how he presents himself. I don’t think he’s for the black community or the white community. I think he’s for everyone. And I don’t like Hillary. I don’t like the way she talks to him. He looks so sad when she does that. He’s my guy.”

That is such an integral part of my own feelings, but I never thought of it this way. Or this: Colin Radicke, who is 23 and works in the produce section at a supermarket, signed up to vote as a Democrat, telling one volunteer, “I want to get out of Iraq.” As for his candidate, he said, “I think I would go with Obama.”

His candidacy is resonating with many people, many for their own peculiar, particular reasons. That is why I found Juan Williams's op-ed piece in yesterday's WSJ so objectionable: he parsed the electorate in cliched ways.

Some folks are charged up: Michael Branigan came to the door with his young son, whom he is raising alone after the death of his wife. He seemed just about euphoric when told that he could change his registration right on the spot. he said, referring to a black man’s being a serious contender for the presidency. “It’s, like, futuristic. By the time this came, I thought I’d be flying around in a spaceship or driving in some kind of little Jetsons vehicle.”

Others are not ... yet: When the canvassers came to the door of Harry Berko, a union electrician and former employee at the steel mill, they got a more grounded response, although friendly enough. He said he was “doing good” and making a decent living, but he added: “We need change. We need to end the war. We need better jobs.” He was already a Democrat and did not reveal whom he favored. As they walked off, he called out to them, “Good luck to yas.”

The reality is stark, mundane, and challenging, in Pennsylvania, and across the land.

Levittown is whiter, older and less educated than the rest of the nation — and Pennsylvania is made up of many Levittowns. The Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, said in February that some in his state were “probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate,” a remark that many would accept as self-evident but that nonetheless earned him sharp criticism. Rendell and most of the state’s Democratic establishment support Clinton, although Senator Bob Casey, a socially conservative, anti-abortion Democrat, endorsed Obama late last month just as Obama began a six-day bus tour across the state.

Reagan democrats, they're called. Rendell said something not politically correct, but accurate. Yet Casey threw an unforeseen complication into what was long considered the inevitability of Clinton's win.

“Pennsylvania is like a home game for Hillary,” Oxman [a political consultant in Philadelphia and may know Pennsylvania better than any political professional] told me. “In places like Levittown, he was cutting into her demographic. The blue-collar males were available to him partly because they did not like her. But about four or five days before the Ohio and Texas primaries, she turned the election from a referendum on change to a referendum on experience, and he lost them.”

Oxman adds maybe two thirds of 200,000 newly registered voters are in the Obama camp, yet needs to change back the focus of the campaign from experience to change.

Obama’s most important ally in the Levittown area is the first-term congressman Patrick Murphy, the son of a Philadelphia cop, an Iraq war veteran and a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of self-identified Democratic moderates and conservatives. Murphy, who is 34, says he believes that Obama offers the best chance for quickly ending the American involvement in Iraq, which he fervently opposes. He told me, “Barack Obama is going to win Levittown.” I asked him if he really believed that. “Yes, I do,” he said. “He will win it.”

That would be a big victory. Sokolove ends his story on a personal note: I remember my hometown as a place that craved the familiar. The normal. Its racism was hard-edged and overt. Like everywhere in America, it is more tolerant than it once was, but still, Obama’s differences probably do not help him in Levittown. The question that remains is how much they hurt him.

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