JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — This city is largely white, heavily Democratic, and lies in a rugged area of Western Pennsylvania that John Murtha, its late congressman, called “racist” and “redneck” in the run-up to the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
If Obama’s historic victory ushered America into a postracial era, as some observers suggest, the evidence here is murky.
The sputtering economy weighs most heavily on the minds of voters, and the idea of a black president appears to have gained a grudging acceptance. But the question of race continues to influence the political conversation in ways that often are nebulous and coded, residents and observers said. The result is that the president faces a tough challenge in Pennsylvania despite a big advantage in Democratic voters who have a long history of union activism.
Obama campaign workers recalled being chased off lawns in 2008 as they canvassed door to door; nearly all black residents interviewed in Johnstown said that race continues to affect their lives; and 34 percent of Democrats who voted in the April primary election in Cambria County left Obama’s name blank.
“They can’t stand to see a black man in the White House,” said Devon Ellis, 58, an African-American utility worker.
The numbers problem that Obama faces nationally among white men, particularly those without a college degree, appears to be writ large in Cambria County and other parts of the 12th Congressional District, which stretches from north of Johnstown to the West Virginia border.
Among white men across the nation, Mitt Romney leads Obama, 54 percent to 33 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Among all men surveyed in the poll, the presumptive Republican nominee leads 47 to 40 percent.
“There are people who are prejudiced, but that’s the way it is,” said Joseph Antal, 72, a white supporter of Obama who is president of the state chapter of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
“It’s just a new thing, and people don’t want to get over it,” said Frank Fantauzzo, 65, campaign director for the Cambria County Democratic Committee. “People would say, ‘He’s going to make us Muslims.’ ”
Oscar Cashaw, the black owner of a Johnstown fitness center, said, “I’ve had kids as young as 10 years old ask me if Obama was the anti-Christ.”
To counter the fears, Fantauzzo said, he is talking relentlessly to Democratic voters — many of whom oppose same-sex marriage and fear more gun control — about Obama’s support for core party concerns such as health care, labor, and social services for the elderly.
Still, he added, “our job isn’t going to be easy.”
The place of race in the political calculus here is ill-defined, said Kristin Kanthak, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Reliable surveys are rare, voters are reluctant to be truthful, and racism is difficult to quantify.
However, Kanthak said, “if I were a betting person, I would say absolutely that race is mattering, and mattering in a way that most voters don’t even recognize.”
Despite these hurdles for Obama, dozens of recent interviews in Cambria County indicate that the novelty of a black president has faded among some white voters, at least in a year when jobs are topic number one.
“You’ve got to watch what you say because everybody will say, ‘oh, you’re prejudiced,’ ” said Richard Lackey, 58, a white retired school custodian who sat near the town square in picturesque Ligonier. “But the people I’ve talked about it with have the same opinion as I have: Get the job done; it doesn’t matter what you are. I don’t even care if there’s a lady in there.”
Alan Cashaw, president of the Johnstown unit of the NAACP and brother of Oscar Cashaw, agreed that voters are more concerned about the economy than about Obama’s complexion.
“When everybody’s broke, racism takes a second seat,” Alan Cashaw said. “When unemployment’s at 4 percent, that’s when you see the true colors.”
But Alan Cashaw also thinks that certain questions about Obama — his place of birth, his religion, whether he is a socialist — are “definitely code that he’s not acceptable.” Asked whether the United States has entered a postracial era, Alan Cashaw smiled and shook his head with an emphatic no.
Recently, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu caused a stir by saying in a call with reporters that “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.”
Sununu later apologized and said he meant that Obama “does not understand how jobs are created in America.”
For his part, Obama has downplayed suggestions that his election represents a sea change in tolerance.
In an April interview published in Rolling Stone, Obama said, “Look, race has been one of the fault lines in American culture and American politics from the start. I never bought into the notion that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a postracial period.”
However, he added, Americans should not “underestimate the fact that there are a whole bunch of little white girls and white boys all across the country who just take it for granted that there’s an African-American president. That’s the president they’re growing up with, and that’s changing attitudes.”
Some blacks, however, have questioned whether Obama has deliberately avoided a racial agenda. He declined an invitation last month to address the NAACP annual convention, although Romney accepted the opportunity.
“He doesn’t want to seem like he’s the champion of the black race, but these are the same people who voted him in,” said Oscar Cashaw, 58.
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor who taught Obama there, said that analyzing the president through a racial prism — by any group — is not helpful.
“We have to be careful that we don’t make him the ‘black’ president rather than the ‘American’ president who tries to do something for everybody,” Ogletree said. Nationally, Ogletree said, criticism of Obama is based more on his politics than his race. “The fact that the country came together in ‘08 ... to elect a person of color as president means the door is open and will not shut soon,” he said.
Dave Gustkey, 65, a white retired phone company worker and Army veteran, echoed that perception as he rested on a bench in Johnstown’s dusty Central Park.
“He made it; he’s a role model,” said Gustkey, one of 18 children of a former steelworker. “It’s a proven thing now that anyone in the United States — black or white, man or woman — can be president.”
In a May 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of all respondents, including 91 percent of whites, said that a black candidate’s race would not affect their vote for president. In August 2007, the figure for all respondents was 84 percent.
US Representative Mark Critz, a Democrat and former Murtha aide who represents Johnstown, said his late boss’s controversial statements might simply have been the unfortunate, weary result of a long day at the office.
“I haven’t encountered it much, or at all,” Critz said of racism in the district. “We will never be completely free of prejudice. It’s just a matter of the extent of it. In the current election, people are talking more and passing judgment on the state of the economy.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.