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.

John Murtha. Click image to expand.
Rep. John Murtha

PITTSBURGH—When John P. Murtha, a Democratic silverback from a nearby stretch of Appalachia, called western Pennsylvania a "racist area," everybody seemed outraged, but no one was surprised. The truth or falsity of his remark factored into almost no one's assessment—there was just horror that somebody said it at all. Trying to mend fences, Murtha later told a TV station that the area is vastly better than in years past. A scant five or 10 years ago, he said, it was "really redneck."

As the howls of outrage bounced off the hillsides, my mind turned back to the last day of November 1976, when I sat with some colleagues at the Old Keg bar on Main Street in Portage, Pa., in Cambria County. Then and now, it was the heart of the 12th Congressional District—the one Murtha had represented for nearly three years. Another 31 lay ahead of him and, behind him, an ageless history of race, immigration, ethnic identity, and class that had framed the place.

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Word had just reached us that Godfrey Cambridge, the pioneering black actor, had dropped dead on the set of his latest film.

"Godfrey Cambridge died," one of us marveled.

The bartender didn't pause.

"Another nigger died," he said.

What was extraordinary was how ordinary that remark was. This guy wore it on his sleeve. And his lips. And his heart. In this town, he fit in.

All I could muster was a joke to point out the venality of what had just crossed his lips.
"Uh, yeah, Mike. How many is that this year?"

He glared back as my colleagues laughed. I had to wonder, though, if this wasn't a man who kept count that way. Before anyone ventures that this was a lone bigot, stuck in a lonely corner of a world that changed too much around him, keep in mind that Mike ran for school board in the next election. His wife, who knew my feelings about race, rushed up with his pamphlet and tried to soothe things over with humor.

"Vote for a bigot," she laughed. She went on to assure me that Mike was not, in his core, a bad man. I don't doubt that. He could be kind—gracious, even—and did not tolerate fighting or obscenity on the premises. He was a man of his place, and his place was this beery stretch of western Pennsylvania, Jack Murtha country.

So when Murtha spoke of western Pennsylvania as a "racist area," he was painting with a broad brush. But he was also covering a lot of places that needed the paint.

My career in reporting has coincided with Murtha's tenure in Congress, and all of it has been centered in the western half of Pennsylvania. In those years in Cambria, I attended municipal meetings at which "nigger" would sometimes be used with such insouciance by the locals that a man had to wonder whether they didn't use that word in their prayers. At a meeting of the Penn Cambria School Board, a member, livid over the leak of a document, demanded of me, "So who's the nigger in the wood pile?"

"Aw, Marie," I groaned.

Well, she said, that's just the way she is. I threatened to report it, but my editors forbade the word on the pages of my paper. Aside from that, my wife warned me that it would probable get Marie more votes at the next election.

At a borough council meeting in the nearby town of Cresson, Pa., a town employee, discussing the location of a water main leak, suggested it might be somewhere around Angelo Manufacturing at the time a big employer and then the largest maker of Afro hair picks.

"You know," he smiled broadly, "the nigger comb factory." Then he repeated it, just to make sure everyone had heard him.

High and low, from hill to valley in this stretch of the Alleghenies, such talk resonated through my childhood and well into adulthood. I don't hear this kind of talk as frequently these days, but I have no doubt a scary portion of the population is still seized by the underlying prejudice. Its expression has become forbidden, but I'm white enough to know the code, and the code is widespread enough for me to recognize it many places.

What is harder to spot is the curious backspin that informs Obama's troubles with the people in Pennsylvania's West. Murtha tried to explain it in his impolitic remarks, then his clumsy amendments to them. But the attempt was lost in the uproar over the term "racist."

Here's what he said:

There's no question western Pennsylvania's a racist area. When I say racist area, you know, the older people are hesitant—they're slow in seeing change, real change. It's better, though, than it was two or three months ago. Two or three months ago it was bad.

I had a World War II veterans rally, this was maybe three or four months ago, they're all telling me, "I'm not voting for Obama." They're all Democrats. I've got a heavily Democrat district. I don't hear that now. I think the economic situation's changed that.

He was speaking of older voters, whose beliefs are informed by the immigrant experience. Johnstown, Murtha's home, once had a vibrant Ku Klux Klan. I know this because they burned crosses on the hillside above my mother's home in the 1920s, and they were not objecting to the presence of black people—the same black people the mayor of Johnstown ordered to leave town in 1923.