Bowling for Pennsylvania | The Nation


Bowling for Pennsylvania

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A mile up the road, at the Bowl Arena, a truck driver with Eastern European coal miners in his family tree said virtually the same thing, but in English: "I like what Bill Clinton did. Bill can have a big part in being First Man." The truck driver, Jason Yost, is a Michael Moore look-alike, bespectacled and overweight, with a baseball cap pulled over strings of brown hair and a gold cross hanging over a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt. He goes to the same church that Perez does: St. Gabriel's, located in what was once an Irish, now Latino, enclave. But the two men attend separate masses, one in Spanish, the other in English, with choirs set at two different tempos. And they stand on opposite sides of the battle over the local immigration ordinance--Yost supporting it from the sidelines, Perez feeling like an indirect target of it.

About the Author

Gaiutra Bahadur
Gaiutra Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Orwell Prize.

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If Clinton defeats Obama in Pennsylvania, towns in the middle of the state that are, like Hazleton, grappling with rapid changes in hue may make the difference. Nationwide, there have already been disturbing signs of diversity's discontent. A Pew poll conducted at the end of March suggests that anxiety about race and immigration underlies the attitudes of white Democrats who dislike Obama. One in four white Democrats with a negative opinion of him believes he is Muslim. (Despite the highly publicized comments by Jeremiah Wright, his pastor from Trinity United Church of Christ, 10 percent of all voters believe Obama is Muslim.) And white Democrats who don't favor him are much more likely than those who do to believe that interracial dating is wrong, that immigrants pose a threat to American values and that equal rights for minorities have been pushed too far.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Clinton backer, cued this part of the state's electorate in comments to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in February: "You've got some conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."

Consider one stark example from another corner of Pennsylvania that, like Hazleton, has seen both diversity and its backlash: South Philadelphia, home to Geno's, the neon-lit cheesesteak emporium that posted signs at its takeout window reading, "This is AMERICA. WHEN ORDERING please 'SPEAK ENGLISH.'" At a cafe a few blocks away, a regular asked about Obama replied: "Who is he? Where did he come from? What was he? In South Carolina, picking cotton?" A construction contractor who gave the name Mike Giordano said he did not watch Obama's speech on race after the Wright controversy broke because "I don't listen to those people. They don't make sense when they talk." And he summed up the presidential contest this way: "They put a senior citizen for President, a woman and a black man. What do you got? Nothing. But that woman's got balls."

Obama is expected to carry Philadelphia as a whole, but it is less clear how South Philadelphia will vote. As in Hazleton, mixed demographics could determine the course it takes. The neighborhood is the turf of Rocky, the white working-class icon co-opted by the Clinton campaign despite the fact that his alter ego, Sylvester Stallone, backs McCain. Its row houses are also populated by a cross section of classes, ethnicities and tenures in the neighborhood: African-Americans; old-timers descended from Italian and Irish immigrants; new migrants from Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia; and gentrifiers ranging from young professionals to retired empty nesters.

The National Civic League designated Hazleton an All-America City in 1964, and it is still home to churches and other institutions that, Putnam argues, are key to building trust among neighbors. Truck driver Yost, for instance, does not bowl alone. He belongs to a league, known as The Food League because most members wait tables at Applebee's and other area restaurants. A banner subtitled "Bowl for Kids" advertises a fundraiser for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization, and an American flag hangs beside the bowling pins. Despite these signs of a healthy civic life, a report by pollster John Zogby, commissioned after the immigration issue erupted and based on interviews with almost 200 residents, concluded that Hazletonians "perceive a loss of community over the past several decades" that mirrors the national retreat to backyards and TV rooms. Zogby's survey also laid bare a belief among local Latinos that they are racially profiled and discriminated against in schools, for jobs and by the police and news media.

With Barletta running against incumbent Democrat Paul Kanjorski for Congress in a race that has generated more heat and attention locally than the presidential contest, immigration is likely to be on the minds of primary voters on April 22. Clinton and Obama have virtually identical stances on the issue, but it still has the power to divide voters along the lines of race. A chasm of mistrust and self-censorship has opened up between residents, says Anna Arias, a social worker for the Diocese of Scranton. Her outspoken opposition to Barletta's ordinance--"If you pass this," she told the City Council, "you will [make this] the first Nazi city in the country"--cost her friends. Arias was a child in the Dominican Republic when dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated. A parrot in the house had been trained to squawk "Viva Trujillo!" and it continued to swear out its loyalty even after the dictator's burial. She remembers that Dominicans behaved like that parrot for a long time, though the despot was dead. "There wasn't a lot of trust," she says. "People were still afraid to speak their true sentiments." The immigration ordinance in Hazleton has brought that parrot back to her vividly. "It became the unspoken topic," she says, "because you don't know who agrees and who disagrees, and you're kind of afraid to find out."

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