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Obama Campaign In Pennsylvania: A Tale Of Two Levittowns

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I got my first overtly racist anti-Obama comment today while phoning central Pennsylvania. It was a 62-year-old man, who said, simply, "I'm not voting for the black man." I moved to end the call, but he continued, "I've worked with hundreds of black people." He meant that as a defense ("Some of them are my best friends!") but the point was clear. At least he was honest.

It's interesting, then, to read on-the-ground reporting from Levittown, Pennsylvania, in today's NY Times, which was echoed on Daily Kos. "Levittown is whiter, older and less educated than the rest of the nation -- and Pennsylvania is made up of many Levittowns," writes Michael Sokolove, a Levittown native. Perhaps I was calling into one of them.

I grew up a short bike ride from the original Levittown -- Levittown, New York, the one featured in all the social studies textbooks. Actually, I grew up in what Bill O'Reilly calls "the Westbury part of Levittown," which is to say, Salisbury. In 1981, my family moved to a split-level (so, not a real "Levitt" house) just off Old Country Road. By then, suburban New York was in flux, and I suspect it was around then that Levittown NY took a different turn than Levittown PA. Maybe a third of my high school classmates lived in Levittown proper, and I remember, as the Cold War wound down, hearing rumor of Grumman's shrinking fortunes as demand for its F-14 began shifting away.

Back then, blue-collar work meant a middle-class lifestyle. But the economic shock of Gruman's decline and ultimate sale, coming so soon after the 1987 recession, put Long Island on the path to a post-industrial future. From Stony Brook in the east, biotech was coming; from the west lapped waves of money from New York's capital markets. Gruman was to Levittown NY what Fairless Works was to Levittown PA, but with the luck of geography the older Levittown escaped the millstone around its neck. (Ironically, Fairless Works is called "the mill"). Today, the median household income of Levittown NY is $78,454 to PA's $58,985; industrial work comprises 17% of PA's jobs but only 9% of NY's. (Latest data for NY, PA).

In other demographic matters, the two Levittowns are almost identical. They also share a similar history. As Sokolove reports,

"And on matters of race Levittown has a particularly shameful history. It was billed as "the most perfectly planned community in America," and part of the plan was for it to be whites-only: 5,500 acres, stretching across three Pennsylvania townships and one borough, closed off to blacks. The first development of mass-produced homes by Levitt & Sons, Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, which dates from 1947, had the same exclusionary policies. William Levitt weakly insisted that he would love to sell houses to black families but had "come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours."

And so, as of 2000, both Levittowns were 94% white, with PA's having a few more blacks and NY's having more Latinos (many of whom are counted as white) and Asians.

The racial history of Long Island was sometimes written in stone, as in the low highway overpasses that Robert Moses allegedly designed to prevent New York City buses from reaching the beach. It's also written on the crazily overlapping boundaries that divide up our school districts. Mr. O'Reilly might be excused for not knowing whether he hailed from Levittown or Westbury; my high school drew from both, plus East Meadow, and belonged to the East Meadow School District. (Two other school districts also covered Levittown.) Yet our school did not take students from the other side of Old Country Road, a majority black and Latino community known as New Cassel. Those kids went to Westbury High School, in the Westbury School District.

I was one of about a dozen Asian kids in my class of 181 (ours was the smallest class the school had ever seen), and I'm pretty sure the only non-Hispanic black kid in the class was in the special education program (he was deaf). Unlike Sokolove's experience in 1950s PA, Jews were much more numerous in my high school, and especially my part of town; today, Jews comprise some 15% of Levittown NY but only about 5% of Levittown PA. And while I don't have up-to-date demographics at hand, from what I've seen Levittown NY has become more diverse since the 2000 census, especially among Latinos and East and South Asians.

I can't speak directly to the Levittown, proper, experience, but growing up in the next town over in the 1980s, my experience of race was -- while not uncomplicated -- not fraught with hatred or even significant overt prejudice. I don't know if it was our particular generation (the youngest children of the oldest hippies), religious diversity, or -- as some of my friends have suggested -- high marijuana usage in my school, but when I compare notes with peers from other schools from elsewhere in the country, I do believe that I had a uniquely peaceful, even idyllic, childhood. Which is not to say that race never surfaced in ugly ways (in retrospect, I think the Archie Bunker lookalike next door hit golf balls on our roof on purpose), but that it wasn't quite as simple as kids lining the halls making Chinkie jokes, either.

On the other hand, I wasn't black.

Still, it frankly surprises me that I haven't encountered any overt racism in working on the Obama campaign these past few months until tonight. Even if racism is out there, it's shrouded in code words or perhaps lying to pollsters -- which implies that even racists of the old-school sort know that the public consensus is against them. There's a lot to be thankful about in terms of race relations in this country, and the Levittown that I know in New York gives me hope about the future. So, too, do some of the Levittown PA residents that Sokolove reports on. Said John Annunziata, a former local politician, "When he won Iowa, it touched my soul. I was very emotional. I felt like we were moving toward what this country should be."

Gene Koo blogs over at AnderKoo - check it out.