I didn’t want my story about Ohio’s white working-class voters to be focused on race. But of course the subject came up, without me even asking about it. The experience was gripping, sad, and a little bit scary.
Before I started interviewing people, I decided that the focus of the story should not be how these voters feel about black people, a black president, or whether they are more or less likely to vote for a black man. That ground has been well-plowed since 2008, and I did a variation on the theme just the other day. Instead, my idea was to see what these voters are looking for in a president—what moves them. I knew that in general, these white people see some things differently than working-class black voters (who are overwhelmingly in President Obama’s corner) or working-class Latinos (many of whom are turned off by the GOP’s stance on immigration). We write about so-called minority ethnic groups all the time. Why not write about these particular white people in Ohio, especially since they will play a huge role in choosing the next president of the United States?
So I head into Ohio and start talking to white folks. I’m going to places like dollar stores, check-cashing spots, gas stations, diners, and so forth. Sometimes I just see someone in his or her yard, or working by the side of the road, and pull over. I was on and around Route 7 on the eastern edge of the state. In two days and about 400 miles of driving (none of it on interstates) I counted a total of five black people. But three of those five were on a crew repairing a road. So it was not hard to find working-class white people around Route 7 in Ohio.
One of the questions on my list (I always have a list, written down, before I start interviewing) was, can you relate to Obama or Romney? Do you think they can understand your life? None of the two dozen folks I interviewed said Romney was relatable. Many said quite the opposite. About half said they could relate to Obama. My favorite was the truck driver who said something like, “Yeah, if Obama was here right now, I think I could have a conversation with him, just hang out. It would just be like talking to a cool smart black guy, like you.”
That comment summarizes how everyone treated me. They were friendly, open, just regular. I didn’t feel one bit out of place—until the last interview of the trip.
She was a 23-year-old woman in the little town of Dilles Bottom, right next to Shadyside. I ran into her at a restaurant that her parents have owned her whole life. They also own the motel across the parking lot. We sat down on the patio on the side of the restaurant, she pulled out a pack of Camels, and we talked for about 40 minutes.
The first thing I ask is how she feels things are going in America.
“How do I say this without sounding like too much of a redneck?” she says. “I think things are horrible.” She gives reasons like Obama’s decisions with troops overseas, downsizing of the military, that she can’t find a good job, and the state of affairs there in her hometown.
She’s a high school graduate, did three years in the Navy. Now she’s in the reserves and working at a tractor supply store for $7.50 an hour--$235 a week after taxes. She lives with her parents. She owns a truck and a “four-wheeler.” She likes beer. She has PTSD from being sexually assaulted in the Navy. She has about $25,000 in debt from her truck, credit cards, and some medical bills. She aspires to get remarried (the first one didn’t last), have kids, and open a horse-riding school.
It took a while to gather all this. You can’t just interrogate someone. You have to let the conversation wander down some side streets along the way. So it was about 15 minutes into the discussion when out of the blue she asks me, “Do you feel out of your element here?”
The next table over is filled with a half-dozen white biker dudes—older guys with big beards, bigger bellies, bandannas and whatnot. I assume they’re local because of the way they spoke to the waitress inside the restaurant.
I give her my stock answer: As a six-foot-four black man with a Yale degree, I don’t really fit in anywhere. Not in the hood, not in the suburbs, and not here. But I feel comfortable in all those places, because I’ve spent a lot of time in all of them.
I keep it moving: What do you think about Obama?
“I don’t trust him.”
“I don’t know. Do you ever just look at someone and say, I just don’t trust anything you say?”
She continues: “I’d like to sit down and have a beer with Bush. Same thing for Clinton. But I don’t think it’d be fun to have a beer with Obama. He doesn’t seem like a”—she pauses, looking for the right word—“like a person.”
You can’t relate to Obama at all?
“No. I can’t.”
What about Romney?
“I don’t know anything about him.” But she said that he reminds her, vaguely, of her dad.
Can you relate to Romney?
“Yeah, I think I can.”
I mention that Romney doesn’t drink beer or smoke cigarettes because he’s a Mormon, and that Obama does both (or at least he did before quitting smoking). I mention that she doesn't know anything about Romney, but still feels like she can relate to him. And I ask her, do you think you can relate to Romney because he reminds you of your dad, and meanwhile there are very few black people around Shadyside?
She pauses. “This is going to make me sound seriously racist, but yes, it’s because he’s white.”
I was surprised to hear her say it. So I say something like, Really?
“I don’t know why," she says. "I just don’t know why.”
Maybe because you haven’t seen anyone like Obama around here? A black guy from Harvard and all that?
That might be it, she says. “I can’t say that I’m racist, because I’m not. OK, I am. Is there such a thing as picking and choosing? Like, if you’re all ghettoed out, look like a thug, and live off the government, I’m not going to like you.”
We talk some more about her dad looking like Romney, then discuss Romney’s tax plan and some other things. Then something occurs to me. The thing about being “out of my element.”
Am I out of my element here, I ask? Should I feel out of place?
“No,” she says. “Well, yes and no. I guess part of me is saying, watch who you talk to.”
“I‘ve found that this place here is worse than when I lived in the south, racist-wise. A lot of people have never gone more than an hour from here. It wasn’t until a year ago that a black family moved in. Over in Shadyside they ran two black families out.”
What do you mean, ran them out?
“They don’t tolerate them. They shun them, make their life a living hell until they leave. Two families live there now. I don’t see them in town, at the grocery store, nothing.”
I asked for details on how she knows all this is true.
“I hear them calling people the word you’re not supposed to call them. They try to get them to fight. And the police and everybody in town are the same way, so nothing happens.”
Why do you think people act like that?
“They’ve never left the area to see a different side of people. They just hear what older people have told them, so they don’t know any different.”
She says her best friend growing up was a “mixed” girl. She had used that word a few times in our conversation. She talks about how the new gas drilling had brought a lot of "Mexicans" to the area: “We’ve lost count.” She mentions a town she had lived in somewhere in Georgia where a lot of “Mexicans” had arrived. “Now there are no white people there, and everything has gone to trash. I’m afraid that’s going to happen here.”
We talk about some other things before I circle back. I tell her that people reading about our conversation would probably think she's a stone-cold racist. I tell her that I don’t think she hates black people. So, how can you explain all these things you just told me? What would you tell someone who thinks you’re a racist?
There is a long pause, about ten seconds. During this time, I became aware of a silence nearby. The table full of bikers is not talking. That makes me nervous.
“People are going to be who they’re going to be,” she finally says. “I judge a person by how they present themselves and how they act rather than their skin color or race.”
I lower my voice and ask, Are you sure? Is it possible that you have some unconscious bias against black people that you don’t even recognize?
She said, “I have a perfect example of that.” She starts a story about a guy who sold her a cell phone. But there were no black people in the story. It ends up having nothing to do with anything.
While she’s talking, I figure it’s time to leave. My mind is running over some scenarios with the biker dudes. I don't want to make any assumptions about them, but I can see a couple possibilities for trouble. Then she says,
“Are you fully black? You’re very light-skinned, by the way.”
This is the most surprising statement of all.
My mom is white, and my dad was dark-skinned. But pop’s genes dominate in me, appearance-wise. My complexion, hair and lips are about the same as Will Smith’s. My nose is wider than his. Throughout my whole life, people have always been surprised to hear that my mom is white. It has been a consistent theme in my interactions with people. Some of them have silently scrutinized me after learning this information, looking for signs of whiteness. And yet this young woman had correctly guessed that I have a white mom.
I told her yes, my mom is white. Then I thanked her for her time, jumped in my car, and headed home. I made sure to stay below the speed limit.
Jesse Washington is a Senior Writer for ESPN's TheUndefeated.com