Sunday, March 30, 2008

Guys in bars: the Pennsylvania vote

There was a perceptive article a week or two ago in the Washington Post by Krissah Williams who visited two different veterans clubs in Harrisburg Pennsylvania in the middle of the state: one primarily a black club, the other white, both of the millworker persuasion. For the upcoming Pennsylvania primary the paper apparently wanted to get a grassroots feel for the working class vote.

Members of both clubs told her that feelings about race were changing or have changed, but the white guys didn't think they would vote for Obama and the black guys didn't think the white guys would either.

Being something of a habituĂ© of clubs and other bars like these myself—including a few black bars—I think I know how the vote will go. And while Williams got quite a bit of the story right I think she misses (and black people generally, too) a crucial point. So, in the new, open spirit of getting it all out on the table, or on the bar, here goes:

On a one to one basis the outlook of white guys to black guys is grudgingly accepting but, depending on the individuals involved, occasionally cordial. Most of these whites have worked with black guys and have gotten to know them in a way they wouldn't have 30 years ago, and at bottom they know they have pretty much the same problems and aspirations that they do, even if this is rarely expressed.

But white guys in these bars abhor black culture. Not black people individually: black culture. This is a crucial, and poorly understood distinction. There are a number of reasons for this: The first is that most of these white guys don't know very much about middle class black culture; they don't socialize family to family, only worker to worker, probably in a bar. And the white guys are fundamental, not in a religious sense, but in a moral sense. Most of them take responsibility to family seriously. They're from the old country. Maybe not literally, but culturally. The black guys are generally far more liberal or relaxed in the matter of family.

I've known several older white guys, like one that was mentioned in the article, whose daughter married (or, more likely, just lived with) a black man, and had a child with him. Grandpa doesn't like that much. But they all love their black grandchildren as much as they would if they were white (I'm adopting the one-drop rule for clarity here) and occasionally they bring them into the bar if they are babysitting and want a drink; they're not ashamed of them: they're family now and that's that, what's done is done. But almost always the father of the child isn't around anymore or, even worse, he's still sometimes half around and mooching off the mother.

Besides all that, their concept of male black culture generally—even if they know some standup black guys personally—is one of drugs, guns, stupid looking pants, no-work, a bad attitude and, to top it off, bad music. These white guys are not all angels either, but that's way over the top for them.

As forthright as his speeches appear to be to liberals, these white guys at the bar will not vote for Obama who, probably afraid to alienate one of his major bases, has understandably been less explicit than Bill Cosby about what blacks could do for themselves. Obama instead seems to be more tuned into black angst, just like Jesse and Al. These guys are not idealistic millennial kids or academics. They have seen it all from the bottom up—"show me the money". They're also very patriotic and that whiff they got of Obama's pastor on TV didn't surprise them… at all. Same old, same old.

The white guys I know, almost to a man, are Democrats, but they don't like Hillary any better than they like Obama. They picture being married to her and… unh-unh; ain't workin'.

My guess is they'll sit out the primary and then vote for McCain in the general. He has a lot of attraction for this crowd. Or they could sit out that election out too, except they'll probably want a Democratic congress in there just in case.