Until now, most of the stories I’ve shared belong to people I’ve met in places like Vermont, Chicago, and Southern Africa. I recognize that I have neglected stories which belong to the place I called home for the longest time, and to the people I called neighbors then. There are many worth sharing, especially now that political pundits reduce swathes of the United States into ‘voting blocs.’ Those who were once people are now percentage points in a preference poll. Moreover, one of the major candidates this year is a man who claims to have all the answers for those people I called neighbors for 18 years. Liberals worry that my neighbors will ‘turn Pennsylvania red’ if they vote for that man. They are called rednecks, hicks, and stupid. Let me tell you about one of these people reduced to .01%, hick, and stupid. Let me tell you about my neighbors.
Frank is a middle-aged, third-generation Italian-American, Catholic man. His father worked in coal mines for 20 years after he came back from military service in Germany. His service promised him healthcare and the country’s gratitude. His mining days promised him a hefty pension. So, he promised his children the American Dream. He risked death in European trenches and Appalachian mines so that his children would never want for anything. He ingested coal dust so that they could go to school and ingest an education. Steel mill smog made for dark skies, but at least the future was bright.
Frank’s proud father instilled in him an undying trust in unions, New Deal promises, and when the steel industry started to unravel in the 1970s he taught him to take pride in Pittsburgh’s sports teams instead. Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, and Roberto Clemente–black and brown men who broke records and all precedents–launched the city to the top of American athleticism. Nevertheless, Frank’s father taught him to be proudest of the coaches. They built teams that looked like working-class Pittsburgh, but Frank’s father curiously never gave credit to those black and brown titans; only to the inspiring white coaches. Frank noticed this, but did not question it.
Frank also grew up surrounded by white faces. His youth was spent in a rural borough halfway between Pittsburgh and Johnstown. All of his experiences involved white faces like his: the children and grandchildren of Poles, Italians, and Czechs. In faith, he and his neighbors were proud Catholics. Politically, they were proud Democrats. Unions ensured their success and John F. Kennedy held a place in their hearts. But, when J.F.K.’s successor made civil rights a matter of national importance, Frank’s father mumbled something about lazy negroes. Frank heard this, but did not question it. Anyway, the only black or brown faces he knew were on baseball cards.
In those same years when the Steel City’s nickname didn’t feel as true, and it became the City of Champions instead; many other things changed. The Supreme Court decided that women had the right to choose abortion, and this shook the foundation of Frank’s catholic upbringing. His mother called it disgusting; his father said something about lazy feminists and something else about lazy negroes for good measure. Frank did not question it. When Ronald Reagan told the country that they needed to reform welfare, Frank heard his father excitedly agree and cathartically say something about welfare queens and lazy negroes. He did not question it.
Now, Frank’s father and mother have been deceased for some time. The promises made to his father of healthcare and pension were not kept. He died of pneumonia in an underfunded veterans’ hospital and his pension was eaten up by the coal industry to cover their losses at the expense of workers and their families. Frank’s promised American Dream began to fracture all around him.
In 2008, a man with a funny name ran for president. Barack Obama captured the attention of the nation and many people who–just like Frank–had long ago lost hope in the American Dream felt a spark of it once more. But, when Frank saw a sign emblazoned with big white letters, OBAMA, on his neighbor’s lawn–the very same lawn that once belonged to him before he moved down the road–his father’s voice returned to him. Once again, he did not question it. He simply knew it as his truth. He kept his sentiment to himself until the next day when he was having a conversation with my mother on our back porch.
Frank said something or other about the weather, about crops, about daily chores. And then, Frank said, “–surprised no one’s thrown a rock through your window yet. Across the road, they mus’ be real mad about that sign.” Thankfully, he did not add anything about lazy negroes for good measure. But, Frank did go on to explain how he personally didn’t mind the sign; it was just that he knew people around here were like that. They were hateful people, he told my mother. They didn’t approve of a black man trying to be president.
But, he did not question it.
Later that month, Barack Obama said that some rural Pennsylvanians “bitterly cling to guns and religion,” and the national media roared ablaze. The comment became delicious politics for rivals like the Clinton campaign and later, Sarah Palin. But locally, my neighbors never thought Obama was wrong. Congressman John Murtha, a man with a background much like Frank’s father, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his own district was full of prejudicial hatred. He predicted that Obama would lose their votes because of it, but that he would still win Pennsylvania. The media once again roared with thunderous outrage. To talk about racism was taboo; probably because it led to talking about race, and to talk about race might reveal one’s racism. Anyway, the district became the only one in the entire country to vote for John Kerry in 2004 but not Obama in 2008, he won the state, and John Murtha was reelected with 60%.
Frank watched the cable news and listened to the radio. He was surprised at Obama and his trusted representative, Murtha, because Fox News told him he ought to be. He distrusted Obama because Obama dared to know him, and because Rush Limbaugh told him so. He did not question it.
The trouble with my neighbors is that they–just like any other humans–cannot be reduced to simple, linear stories. They were part of America’s extraordinary rise, and they have been part of the great betrayal that follows. On one hand, children like Frank are taught to have pride in their faith, their work ethic, and their family. On the other hand, they are taught to see a type of person as other and lesser. Because both sides become part of Frank’s identity, to question one teaching is to question his whole identity. Adults like Frank teach their children the same–maybe not even by explicit word; maybe by action: a tenseness at the grocery store, a decision to play at a different playground, the labeling of one street as iffy, not as safe, or too urban. Seniors like Frank listen to blustery men who promise to know all the answers. Political pundits tell my neighbors that they are backwards and slow to change. Frank hears that he is racist, and that he is the problem. He has always thought unfair economics were the problem: where are his father’s unfulfilled promises?
The man running for president this year makes new promises. He says that there is plenty of coal left in the mountains, and therefore, plenty of jobs to be created. He says he will make America great again. On the other side, politicians claim that economic success will lead to better interracial understanding. These well-meaning liberals explain that financial prosperity will heal racial hatreds. But, my neighbors have known racial prejudices in good times and bad alike. Who are my neighbors to trust? Who actually speaks for them?
And most importantly, when will they start to question it?