A recent New York Times article (‘Rural Swath of Big State Tests Obama,’ August 21, 2008) described life in the dead mill towns of western
This account interested me. I am from
The distance between
When I was young, parts of this highway were three lanes, and you could pass in the middle lane from either direction. If you were traveling east and started to pass a car, you never knew when someone going west might have the same idea. After many accidents, the third lane was converted into a turning lane or a fourth lane added. Progress! Back then,
I say much the same about my hometown,
It is true that there is abundant racism in these parts. Hillary Clinton knew this, and she, her husband, and governor Ed Rendell subtly played the race card in the primary election. Rendell said that there were whites in the state who would not vote for a black man. Hillary Clinton said that Obama would have a hard time winning support from ‘white Americans.’ In my fifty-five years in the region, I heard thousands of racist remarks—in bars, bowling alleys, on basketball courts, in college classrooms, in worker education classes, and in the faculty dining room. More than once, someone threatened to beat me up when I challenged such comments. A few weeks ago, my sister was doing voter registration and campaigning for Obama in our hometown. A group of teenagers standing across the street from her spewed out racial epithets.
There is no doubt that a not insignificant number of white working class voters will not vote for a black man for president under any circumstances. Some may vote for McCain, although those interviewed in the Times story had little use for him or for the war in
What exactly does Obama have to say to them? Is he going to fight for their lost pensions? Make sure that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation has adequate funds? Is he going to do battle for their health care? Is he going to get the unemployment insurance system fixed? Is it possible to believe that he will go afer all those anti-worker trade agreements? Will he ensure that social security is never privatized? That it be made more generous, as it easily could be? Is he going to reverse the Bush administration’s draconian labor policies? Put people on the National Labor Relations Board who take the purpose of the labor laws—to promote collective bargaining—seriously?
Will he make the Occupational Safety and Health Act a real law and not the dead letter it is now? Will he engineer a public works program that rebuilds the infrastructures of these forgotten towns and puts their citizens to work? Will he look for creative ways to bring these places back to life? Will he do something about public education and get rid of the corporate-inspired and ultra authoritarian No Child Left Behind legislation? Will he fight for college grants for those with little income? Will he bring home the working class wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters from
Obama has failed to say anything meaningful about these matters, and as the campaign drags on, he moves ever further to the right. And if he doesn’t speak to the white working class, how could it be said that he speaks to the black or Hispanic working class either? What about the more than one million black men and women in prison? The gutted and ruined inner cities? The lost manufacturing jobs? The millions of immigrants now being treated as criminals, imprisoned and sometimes tortured before being shipped off to their native lands?
I doubt that we will get much from Obama to inspire working men and women, of whatever part of the country, of whatever age, race, or ethnicity. Now he has chosen a pathetic old hack, Joe Biden, to be his running mate. What exactly has Biden done for workers in his more than thirty years in the Senate? That a man who has been in this elite body (whose members’ stock portfolios have performed better than almost anyone else’s) this long can be called ‘working class’ by Obama himself tell us just how lame
It is a shame that some white workers are racist. I chalk most of this up to the abject failure of the labor movement to attack the race issue head on many years ago. But Obama might have won over the voters Hillary Clinton got by pretending she was still a working class woman from
Between 1980 and 2001, I taught over 1,000 workers in labor education classes held throughout western
Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly review magazine.He is the author of Cheap Motels and Hot Plates: an Economist’s Travelogue and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. Yates can be reached at [email protected]
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