In Parts of Pa., Racial Divide Colors Election

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- At American Legion Post 733, the day begins around 10 a.m., when the first men trickle in, turn on ESPN, order a whiskey or a gin and tonic, and start talking about sports. Most were born and raised here, and are retired from the nearly shuttered Bethlehem Steel mill nearby or work the night shift at local warehouses.

Ten minutes down the road, at American Legion Post 420, the ritual is the same, except it starts late in the afternoon, after quitting time. The men have similar drinks, similar jobs and a love for the same football team -- the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But when it comes to race and politics, these are two separate worlds. Post 733 is almost all black, its members energized by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.); Post 420 is almost all white, its members debating whether to vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in next month's Pennsylvania primary. They all agree with Obama on this: The chasm he talked about in his speech on race in America is real.

In his remarks -- prompted by an uproar over controversial sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- Obama challenged African Americans to move away from the black-vs.-white "stalemate" and embrace "the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past." He urged white Americans to acknowledge that "what ails the African American community does not just exist in the minds of black people."

Yet in the two worlds of these veterans, Obama's speech was one more dividing point. Rather than bringing the men in Post 733 and Post 420 closer together, it seemed to highlight the gap between them.

Dan Dowett, 64, a white Air Force veteran who worked 36 years as a crane operator and caster at the steel mill and hangs out at Post 420, said Obama got it right when he talked about the distrust many blacks and whites have for each other. But the best speech in the world couldn't persuade Dowett to vote for him.

"A lot of what he said was true. There is a race problem in this country that has got to be addressed," Dowett said a couple of hours after watching snippets of Obama's speech on the news. But "he's going to back a preacher that to me sounds like a treasonous person?"

At Post 733, Ross Mounds, 63, a black Army veteran who worked 30 years at Bethlehem Steel, said the controversy over Wright is just the excuse some whites are looking for not to vote for a qualified black man.

"Anytime we are in anything, they are going to try to inject race in there," said Mounds, who sees truth in Wright's statement that "racism is how this country was founded, and how this country is still run."

"When we look at the powers that be, the majority are white," Mounds said.

How Obama does in attracting working-class white men will be a critical test for him in Pennsylvania, which, like Ohio, is dotted with fading industrial towns that have long histories of racial segregation and uneasy relations between blacks and whites. In Ohio's primary on March 4, Obama lost badly to Clinton among such white male voters.

Harrisburg's population of nearly 50,000 is 55 percent African American, 32 percent white and 12 percent Hispanic, and the city is surrounded by predominantly white suburbs, including the sad mill town of Steelton, where American Legion Post 420 is located.

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