Swing-State Rednecks

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

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.

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.

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.

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.