Since Barack Obama gave a dramatic speech on the subject of race this spring, the issue has lingered over the election, a quiet, awkward factor that the candidates, their campaigns and their surrogates have brushed aside or would rather not talk about at all.
But there’s one place the “national conversation” Obama suggested in March is taking place: among white, Rust Belt union workers, who generally voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary. Their leaders have led a large-scale, direct and under-the-radar conversation about some members’ discomfort with a black Democratic nominee.
“I think a lot of people expected when he made that speech about a national conversation about race that it would be formalized,” Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said in a telephone interview from Ohio. “In the labor movements and unions and the way they are composed, it just became a reality.
“Some of our own people had never experienced anything like this before, so the dialogue did take place, the conversation did take place,” he said.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 in Philadelphia, for instance, mailed out a plastic MP3 player to members that featured 60 minutes of local union workers and leaders offering testimonials on Obama’s commitment to labor.
“This election is not a personality contest, nor should it be about race. So let’s talk about that and get it out of the way right now. The fact that Sen. McCain is white and Sen. Obama is black should not matter. Though I know for some of you it does. You are not alone,” says Local 98 head John Dougherty, through a thick Philadelphia accent. “Don’t let the color of a man’s skin prevent you from doing the right thing. I know Barack Obama. I know him to be a man of great character and conviction.”
Other unions have sent out DVDs to members with the same message.