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.
Before Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt in 2001 and later sold its Steelton mill, the workforce there was racially mixed. But the workers who labored together and passed each other on the street lived separate lives. Obama's candidacy and his call for a new racial dialogue have not bridged that gap.
The racial lines between the seemingly similar groups at the two American Legion posts aren't hard and fast, but they shape the way the men see the presidential campaign.
At Post 733, Mounds identifies with the "black anger" Obama described, built up in his lifetime by years of what he sees as racial slights. He pushed his drink aside at the post's bar and said he sees in America a white power structure that pays more attention to white children who go missing than to black children, incarcerates black men at a higher rate than other groups and still sanctions clubs that are for white men only.
"Something's got to be done. Not for me, because I'm no spring chicken, but for my children and my grandchildren," he said as Earth, Wind & Fire blasted on the sound system.
Back in Steelton, Mark Willits, 48, said firmly that the focus on race is the "worst thing that could have happened to" Obama's candidacy. "It's a shame that's even an issue at all," said Willits, who works in construction and will probably vote for McCain. "Nobody's happy."
Gary Lamke, 53, sitting at Post 420's bar a few feet from Dowett, said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Clinton supporter, was correct when he said last month that there are some conservative whites in the state "who are probably not ready to vote for an African American candidate."
"Some of these people still believe the woman should be home taking care of the baby, and they are not going to vote for a black. That's just what they believe," Lamke said, a Schmidt beer in his right hand. "There's prejudice in this country that's never going to go away completely. My stepdaughter's with a black man and went and had a baby by him. I'm okay with it, but that's me. I was raised around black people. If they vote Obama in, I won't lose a wink of sleep because of his color or his policies, but I'm voting for Hillary."
For his part, Dowett may do something he never thought he would do: "For the first time in my lifetime, I might vote for a Republican," he said.
He long ago wrote off Clinton, blaming her husband's embrace of globalization for the demise of the U.S. steel industry. If independent candidate Ralph Nader doesn't make it on the ballot in Pennsylvania, Dowett might vote for McCain, figuring that at least he would look out for senior citizens and veterans.
Dowett said he has nothing in particular against Obama but still can't quite get comfortable with him. Obama "could have thrown [his preacher] under the bus, but he didn't, and that shows loyalty. I respect that," he said. But Wright's words still sound to Dowett completely un-American. They strike him as carrying baggage from the past that he believes black people need to get over.
"I believe the country has softened on race relations," Dowett said. "How am I going to put this without sounding prejudiced? The fact that we have a [black] man running for president of the most powerful country in the world says a lot. . . . You see, Bill Cosby was right on when he says, 'Black people should not be complaining about the past and being persecuted by white people. Why don't they go out and do?' Bill Cosby tells it the way it is. Forty years ago to today, there's no comparison."
Down at Post 733, named in honor of Ephraim Slaughter, a black Civil War veteran, the men and a few women argued that racial politics are never far below the surface in Pennsylvania. Many said they think that the lack of support for Obama from working-class whites in recent contests has been racially motivated, though Obama's aides have said they see the issue as more generational than racial.
Renee L. Hartford said that when Wright came to Harrisburg several years ago for a revival hosted by black pastors, she thought he preached black empowerment, with parts of his message as controversial as the incendiary sermons that made news recently.
"At the time, his message was very much what we needed to hear," she said.
Still, some see reason to believe that the black-white divide is getting smaller -- one person at a time. Decades ago, a buddy of Post 733 regular William Geary married a white woman, and soon afterward they were welcomed to the mill by a burning cross. But 15 years ago, Geary, 75, fell in love with and married his wife, Ellen, who is white. Her white co-workers and family came to the wedding and celebrated.
When he hears black or white folks make comments about his marriage, he is quick to tell them, "This is the best woman I ever had in my life."
To his mind, the millions of white people across the country voting for Obama are proof that many are ready to step across the racial divide -- though he said time will tell if it's enough to get the man elected. "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime," Geary said.