What Jack Murtha and Barack Obama get wrong about race and class in western Pennsylvania.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 21 2008 7:09 PM

Swing-State Rednecks

What Murtha and Obama get wrong about race and class in western Pennsylvania.

(Continued from Page 1)

The Klan was upset with Catholic immigrants—my mom's people.

Survival and support in this maelstrom of immigration at the front end of the 20th century meant sticking to your own. The Irish stayed with the Irish. The Slavs with the Slavs. The Italians not only with other Italians, but with the Italians from their own provinces. The Catholic church in which I was baptized sits directly beside another Catholic church. One was for the Irish, the other for the Germans.

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Getting past this would take time—and a capacity first to move out of the ethnic enclaves. I am 54, and my generation is probably the first in town to begin marrying in appreciable numbers outside of its ethnic group. Our young people are remarkably without prejudice.

But in Jack Murtha's district as elsewhere, ethnicity also informs class, and class issues often dictate how we miss the point about race and what to do about it.

George H.W. Bush, the Bush everyone now praises for competence to avoid confusing him with his son, was content to allow the Willie Horton ads to run on his behalf. His campaign manager, Lee Atwater, promised he would make Willie Horton the Democratic running mate that year. Only a willing fool could think that those ads were simply about crime, especially given that Willie Horton committed his while on a furlough program passed by a Republican predecessor to Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis.

One of the interesting sidelights of the 1988 contest was a story that mentioned what were viewed as quirky contradictions in the elder Bush. A writer noted that Bush had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act yet once asked a party guest to leave his house for telling a racist joke.

Presumably, the message was that Bush was more complex a character than we'd been led to think. For a Cambria County boy, raised around liberals who loved guns and working-class steelworkers who just hated it when their children married out of their ethnic group, much less racial category, there was no mystery.

Bush had ejected his guest not for being a racist but for being déclassé. Such conduct was embarrassing and inappropriate in the way that one doesn't go to a dinner party and brag about his sexual conquests. Such talk is for the locker room, not the boardroom.

There is no way of adequately stressing how much class plays a role in this sort of thing, especially in a region in which blue-collar workers are a remnant of days as lost as the smokestacks that were torn down in the Monongahela and Conemaugh valleys two decades ago. The people who remain to speak with yesterday's voice are yesterday's blue-collar workers. In western Pennsylvania, there are a lot of them. The region has one of the highest average ages in the nation. They hold to the old ways, not only on race but on guns and abortion.

Barack Obama has offended them on two levels, and they do not always overlap.

There are those voters here, in numbers no longer easy to measure simply by walking among them, who cannot find it in themselves to vote for a man of color. The empiricist in me says they are antique remnants of their parents' ethnic isolation. They are unreachable, but their children and grandchildren inherited only their DNA, not their politics. To understand how apolitical this racism is, consider that, much like the Republicans of the Old South, the GOP here has tended to offer more opportunities to run and participate to African-Americans than have the Democrats, who have been slow to put up black candidates for statewide office. The Republicans ran Lynn Swann, a Hall of Fame receiver for the Steelers, for governor.

The other group is, well—it's me and people like me: people who grew up in staunchly liberal, even quasi-socialist households in which nobody doubted that Sunday was for church and the first day of deer season was a day off school and nobody's sister had an abortion. These were cultural as well as religious values in the 12th District. Liberals not only owned guns but sometimes used them to redistribute the wealth. During mineworker strikes dating to the 1920s, the occasional gunshot fired from a wooded hill was not the work of a right-wing gunman. That was labor metal flying at you.

When Obama made his remarks about bitter Pennsylvanians clinging to guns and religion, many of us saw it as a Harvard man giving us the high hat. It spoke to issues of class and a sense that the man who had been entrusted the tattered banner of the working middle class somehow thought us incapable of deciding our own destinies.

Possibly, our religion clings to us. Certainly those of us who practice the religions of our parents do so because it is part of our identities—not so much something we have chosen to retain as something that has chosen to retain us. We simply chose to remain. Our guns are not a solace. They are a testimony to our distrust of the ruling classes. We just wish someone would read us correctly at some point and not do it in the voice of an adult reading a children's story.

I do not know whether the person who finally decodes western Pennsylvania will become president. I'm pretty sure that whoever does it will be able to run the country.

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