I was in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, looking for people to interview about their perceptions of how race relations had changed since the election of the first black president. I spotted a white gentleman eating alone. He looked to be in his mid-50s. I introduced myself and he was happy to speak with me. He gave me his name, occupation (construction management for a state transportation agency), and home town (in a mountainous state between California and Kansas). He was traveling on business. He had voted for Obama in 2008 “because I thought he could unify the country.”
Unify how, I asked. Politically? Racially?
“Both, really,” he said.
But now this man was completely unhappy with Obama. He thought he had “deepened racial divisions” through policies like “Obamacare” and other things that act as a “tax on working people and are a huge benefit to those who don’t deign to work, who reside on welfare for years.”
And these people who don’t deign to work are disproportionately black?
“Yes. More of an inner-city type of individual,” he said.
At this point, let me say that I do not believe this man is a racist. We spoke for about 30 minutes. I don’t think he believes white people are better than black people, or that black people are lazy, violent, and so forth. And it seems very unlikely that he could be a racist and vote for Obama in 2008. I can’t be certain, of course. But this was my impression from the overall tone and nuance of the statements he made.
Back to the interview: The man said a lot of things that I have heard from many non-racist white Americans: Obama seems to favor black people. He’s “pushing an agenda through the Democratic political system to try and benefit certain classes or groups of people more than others.” That when Obama said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” he was “saying subconsciously that Trayvon couldn’t have done anything wrong, and he shouldn’t have been penalized because he looks that way.”
(“Penalized” is quite a mild euphemism for losing your life.)
Looks what way, I asked the man. Black?
“That’s right,” he said.
I understand where these feelings come from, because I spend a lot of time on my job speaking to white Americans. They are not unusual ideas.
Then came the most interesting part. I was setting up a question and mentioned that Obama doesn’t talk often about race.
The man interrupted me: “His wife does, though.”
“She talks about it, and he can’t divorce himself from what she says.”
What kind of things does she say?
“Things like, I hate America.”
As it happened, I had just finished writing a profile of Michelle Obama. I had read two biographies of her, a half-dozen in-depth profiles, and two months’ worth of “Michelle Obama” Google alerts. Not once had I seen any mention of her saying, “I hate America.” I had not even seen a debate over her saying that. I’m fairly certain that she has never publicly said anything close to that. If she had, they would be making a fortune selling T-shirts with that quote above her picture.
I asked the man if he had actually seen a clip of her saying that, or read a quote to that effect. He acknowledged that he had not, but “she is credited with saying it.”
And you believe that?
“I think she could have said it,” the man said.
Anyway, I wrap up the interview and proceed to quote the guy in my story, because like I said, his statements were indicative of how a significant portion of the population thinks. The next day, I get an email from him:
“After our interview yesterday in Philadelphia I talked to my supervisor. He was not very pleased with our conversation. It is extremely important that you do not reference my name or my company. If that happens I will most likely lose my job. Additionally my wife was not happy because she believes we will be stigmatized if our neighbors find out about my position.”
This put me in a tough spot. I was on deadline. AP does not permit the use of anonymous quotes in this situation. I would have been well within my rights to include his name—people often regret what they said in a moment of candor and try to take it back.
But what kind of guy would I be if this guy lost his job?
I took him out of the story. I did have a question, though. What was his wife afraid of, exactly? That his neighbors like Obama so much they would treat her badly if they know how this guy feels about him?
“I won't pretend to understand where she is coming from,” he emailed me back. “Even after 32 years I can't guess on this one.”