In York, a test of racial concord

The Baltimore Sun

YORK, Pa. -- Barack Obama's campaign headquarters sits on the edge of downtown York, next to a store selling hip-hop clothing. A few blocks away, Latin music blares from an open window draped with a Puerto Rican flag facing Hillary Clinton's office.

Halfway between lies prime real estate that has become the latest reminder of York's troubled racial past.

Mayor John S. Brenner wants to erect a statue at George and Market streets as part of an initiative he calls "Healing York," an effort to soothe lingering pain inflicted by a deadly race riot nearly four decades ago. But disagreement over the design is causing damage of its own.

At meetings, "people are crying; they're angry," said Adrienne McNeil, a Baltimore County native and executive director of York County Community Against Racism. "It's a huge thing right now."

This is the treacherous terrain facing the campaigns of the Democratic presidential candidates as they seek votes in south-central Pennsylvania, a sometimes overlooked slice of the next big primary state, less than an hour's drive from Baltimore.

York and its suburbs offer a test of whether voters are ready to move beyond the challenges of racial divisions, a topic much discussed during the run-up to Pennsylvania's April 22 primary and thrown into doubt by recent events.

In this compact city of 41,000, where the Continental Congress convened during the Revolutionary War and the Underground Railroad sheltered runaway slaves seeking freedom across the Mason-Dixon Line, blacks, whites and Hispanics live and work side by side while struggling to overcome a history marred by discrimination and inequality. African-Americans make up a quarter of York's population, and Hispanics about 17 percent, according to the census.

Race has been a subtext in the presidential campaign, largely because of the candidacy of Obama, son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas.

For months, it seemed as if Obama would run as an African-American candidate emblematic of a postracial world. Then came the publicity over fiery comments by Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who in a 2001 sermon told his Chicago church that the United States perpetuated AIDS to wipe out blacks and that the nation was damned, not blessed, by God.

While pundits pondered whether Obama's long relationship with Wright would alienate white voters, the remarks seemed to have slid past York voters with barely a ripple. Here, discussions of race take a back seat to more immediate concerns such as the Iraq war, gas prices and a lack of jobs with pay that keeps pace with inflation.

Inside the Front Line urban clothing store next to Obama's headquarters, Alonzo Seay is sipping vegetable juice to shake off the effects of a night of revelry as his sister vacuums the carpet. Seay, 41, has lived in Newark, N.J., and Baltimore and prefers the pace of York. "This is much safer than Baltimore," said Seay, who is black. "We all get along."

Seay is an Obama supporter, saying that "we need a change in Washington," particularly on U.S. policy in Iraq. "It's time for our boys to come home. Let Iraq deal with Iraq."

But personally, he is more worried about finding a job. The area is filled with factories that offer good pay, including the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. and York International air conditioning. But many jobs are filled through temporary agencies, and Seay said he was dumped from one job he enjoyed after a few months, before getting the chance to become a full-time employee. His criminal background might be a factor, he acknowledged.

"As far as jobs, you can't get them," he said.

At York's Central Market, where the seafood stalls and produce hawkers conjure images of Baltimore's Lexington Market, Renaldo Raymundo, 35, was finishing a sushi lunch with his girlfriend as discussion turned to Pennsylvania's primary. Raymundo, an Obama supporter, said he will vote for Republican John McCain in November if Clinton is the Democratic nominee.

"I feel as though the Clintons had their chance," Raymundo said. "It's too much Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton."

A native of the Bronx, N.Y., Raymundo is puzzled by York's racial mix. Shortly after he arrived here in 2001, 23 people were arrested when white supremacists marched through the city and clashed with anti-racist groups. He was shocked to learn that such hate groups "really exist."

The same year, the city's then-mayor, Charlie Robertson, was indicted for his role in the 1969 riot. He was a police officer at the time and was acquitted of charges that he dispensed bullets that led to the killing of a young black woman.

"Race is one of those things people would rather not talk about," Raymundo said.

Sipping a soda during her weekly game at neon-festooned Suburban Bowlarama on the southern fringe of York, Barbara Robertson, 51, said her top concern is how the country cares for senior citizens. She's worried about her aging parents, who took out a reverse mortgage on their home to make ends meet.

Acknowledging that Clinton might have more experience with such social service issues, Robertson, who is white, said Obama "has my vote."

"I think Obama will step up to the plate," she said. "I don't want Bill [Clinton] back in the White House."

A sales representative for Hershey Foods, Robertson said she wasn't concerned about Wright's comments, because "it wasn't Obama saying it."

White voters such as Robertson may well be crucial to winning Pennsylvania, where Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Clinton backer, has said that some conservative whites might not be ready to vote for a black president.

The Wright episode has shifted the internal tensions confronting white voters, said Matthew Woessner, a public policy professor at Penn State Harrisburg. For some, Obama's race has always been repellent, but others want to support the Illinois senator to "demonstrate America's commitment to transcending the racial question," he said.

"After the Reverend Wright controversy, I think racial animosity has become a more powerful force," Woessner said. "It's going to be difficult for [Obama] to maintain the mantle of transcending race."

Clinton's lead in Pennsylvania has shrunk to single digits, according to a Quinnipiac University survey released last week, but she is polling solidly among white working-class voters, the demographic that contributed to her Ohio victory.

Toni Smith, 74, is a City Council member who plans to vote for the New York senator because, she said, "I like what Hillary is saying about health care."

While Wright's comments "did a lot of damage, if you didn't understand the black community," Smith said, Obama still enjoys strong support from young voters who don't hold the same racial grudges as past generations.

But prejudices in York are not hard to find.

McNeil, the anti-racism group director, who is black, recalled arriving at the Country Club of York for a Junior League meeting last year at which she had been invited to speak. A white doorman held his hand to her chest and said, "Are you lost? I don't think you belong here."

She said she's making sure the Junior League doesn't meet there again.

While volunteers stream in and out of the York offices of Obama and Clinton, working telephone banks and distributing yard signs, the candidates have yet to appear here to address race or other issues.

Neither Obama nor Clinton has accepted an invitation to address an NAACP forum here tomorrow, though both campaigns said they would send representatives. Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, spoke before a predominantly white audience at York College last week, where racial issues didn't come up. When The York Daily Record was granted a five-minute interview with Obama last week, the senator's broad answer to a question about race reflected no familiarity with local conditions.

Republicans hold sway in York County by a large margin, though 6,000 voters switched their affiliation to Democratic before the primary. Some Republicans offer kind words for Obama.

"Reverend Wright doesn't bother me. [Obama has] done a great job for the black community," said Kurt Kay, 41, co-owner of an industrial chrome plating business, who was bowling last week at the Suburban lanes.

Kay, who is white, plans to vote for McCain over either Obama or Clinton - but he said that Obama as president would pose no problem. "I'm going to teach my kids to respect him," he said. "No matter what."

Because of an editing error, a quote was mischaracterized in an article about York, Pa., in yesterday's editions of The Sun. In the article, Kurt Kay was quoted, "Reverend Wright doesn't bother me. [Obama has] done a great job for the black community." His reference in the second sentence was to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, not Sen. Barack Obama.The Sun regrets the error.
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