11/04/2008 05:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

York, PA: Race Runs Deep

By Mathew Katz and Laura Cameron

Workers in the Obama campaign office in York County, Pennsylvania have been abuzz for weeks about Leslie Warris, an African-American volunteer who has single-handedly registered 1,000 people to vote since June.

"She's never been involved in a campaign," said Anne Newman-Bacal, a white, semi-retired New Yorker volunteering for Obama in York, "She admits she's never worked with white people except in a servant-kind of position. And she's very excited and very comfortable with it all."

Such intense political involvement on the part of an African-American used to be rare in York. Historically, relations between blacks and whites have been tense resulting from incidents of open racism and violence.

The last time York City made national headlines for its problems with race relations was in 2002 when the white Mayor and former police officer Charlie Robertson was charged with inciting a white mob to murder Lillie Belle Allen, a 27-year-old African-American woman, during the race riots that took place in York City in 1969. An all-white jury acquitted Robertson of the crime. Two other men were charged and convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to prison..

Race remains a sensitive subject, but many of the black and white citizens interviewed in York think Barack Obama's bid for the presidency has brought important change in the once tense racial environment.


Many newly registered voters are African American, in part because of the efforts of volunteers like Warris, who have access to the town's African-American community in ways many white activists would not.

Black residents emphasize, however, that York's long history of race conflict means that people are adept at disguising their prejudices, making it unclear to what extent racism is going to affect which way the county swings in the presidential election.

"Being black, yes, you do get reminded almost daily of your skin color through maybe getting pulled over or walking past somebody and they might clutch their pocket book a little more," said Mike Smith, a 40-year-old respected community leader, who runs programs out of the local YWCA to get youths out of gangs and drugs. "But what happens with a lot of people, African Americans, is they become hardened by it and they turn, in a sense militant, to where it gets to them after enduring it over and over."

But he sees a clear benefit in Barack Obama's candidacy: empowerment, especially if he wins.
"The fact that they could see an African-American that they relate to become president, they'll definitely believe that they could be anything they want in this world," he said "They need that to know what they're worth."

York County went heavily to George W. Bush in 2004, but a recent York College poll shows an even split between Obama and Republican candidate John McCain.

Smith hasn't always been able to vote--in his youth, he was convicted of dealing drugs and served time in a Pennsylvania prison. The experience, he said, has helped him identify with the struggles of the young people he works with. Smith is the leader of the York Guardian Angels, a neighborhood patrol group--made up of whites, African Americans, and Latinos--recently formed to curb neighborhood violence.

He said Obama's candidacy has affected people in the neighborhood in ways that surprise him.
"I've seen kids running around this city, registering people to vote," he said. "Kids [who are] looked at as juvenile delinquents--who I stereotyped as somebody who's in the street world, not the real world."

Jeffrey Lobach, a white lawyer, and a McCain supporter, said many of the town's race problems can be traced to the lack of an African-American middle class. York has experienced a brain drain of educated African Americans, he said, who leave for opportunities in bigger cities and don't come back.

"It makes the community unattractive for educated African-Americans," he said. "They're not fully [en]franchised."

According to Lobach, the town has been taking steps to overcome its reputation, which he said is not entirely deserved.

"We've got diversity efforts, a human relations commission," he said. "We even give out college scholarships to African-Americans."

Despite the presence of such programs, the biracial organization York County Community Against Racism issued a press release in April calling for "the county to acknowledge the institutional racism that, consciously or unconsciously, exists."

The organization, formed in 2003 to "plant the seeds of racial healing," encourages the community to actively address problems of racism in the county.

"We cannot pretend: racism touches our lives where we live," said the release. "Racist practices give some residents of York County advantage or privilege."

In this light, Lobach can see the appeal of an Obama presidency.

"The community is poor," he said. "But a lot of people of color are Obama supporters because they see him as a transitional figure. They see him as a way to improve themselves."

One young African-American professional, Richard Miller, who has lived in York for 12 years, said he has experienced racism in the town, but he has nonetheless thrived. He now works in commercial redevelopment

"The town is still segregated, in a sense." he said. "But now, with [Obama's candidacy], people in the city are finally opening up to diversity. There are fewer people who have a problem with a black person in any kind of power."

Newman-Bacal said that she has encountered racism in varying degrees while canvassing in York City, but much of it is conveyed by a kind of racial shorthand. "There's kind of a code for it that you begin to recognize," she said, "which is kind of like, 'I don't know what it is about him but I don't think I can vote for him.' I think they can't admit the race issue."

While few people admit prejudice against Obama on the basis of race, she said, they are willing to admit to discriminating against him on the basis of religion. Bacal said she sent material to an undecided voter who believes that Obama is Muslim.

The rumors that Obama went to school in a madrassa in Indonesia, and that he was raised as a Muslim surfaced in January. According to the most recent poll taken by Pew Research Center in July, 12 percent of Americans still believe that Obama is Muslim. This rumor is one way voters characterize Obama as different.

Carolyn McGinnis, a McCain volunteer who has lived in York County for 37 years was also misinformed about Obama's background.

"He hasn't been able to provide a birth certificate," she said, "That's scary. I don't know how he has managed to get so far in office without a birth certificate."

Obama's campaign released a scanned image of his birth certificate online in June. Despite the campaign's best efforts, rumors and doubts among conservative-leaning voters here persist.

McCain-supporter Evelyn Dearborn, a white woman in her mid-60s, who lives just outside of York City, also said that she doesn't believe Obama is an American citizen. When asked how she thought race would affect people's perceptions of the candidates, she immediately pointed out the fact that he is black.

Regardless, in York City, the opening up of attitudes can be seen on lawns and windows. According to Smith, many houses that had Bush signs in 2004 now have Obama signs.
Newman-Bacal, the New Yorker volunteering at the Obama office, said it all has to do with volunteers like Warris.

"There are people who come in here that have never taken part in politics before" she said. "It's incredible."