Prejudice in the voting booth is 'wrong' and 'dumb'
By BERRY CRAIG
MAYFIELD, Ky. – Some white folks still can't bring themselves to support Sen. Barack Obama for president because he is African American.
"A lot of them are good union people," Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, told the United Steelworkers of America. "They just can't get past the idea that there's something wrong with voting for a black man."
Trumka confronted prejudice head-on in a headline-grabbing speech at the Steelworkers' recent annual convention in Las Vegas. He didn't pull punches.
"…There's no evil that's inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism – and it's something we in the labor movement have a very, very special responsibility to challenge," said the ex-president of the United Mine Workers of America.
Delegates interrupted Trumka, a third generation Pennsylvania coal miner, with a number of standing ovations.
The Nation called the speech "incredibly significant." Trumka challenged "ignorance and fear" while "calling on the House of Labor to identify and reject the politics of race in order to elect an ally to the presidency," the magazine's John Nichols wrote.
Excerpts of Trumka's remarks are on You Tube, the popular Internet site. Go to http://youtube.com/watch?v=7QIGJTHdH50.
Trumka said racism is not just wrong, it's dumb -- doubly dumb if you pack a union card.
"There's not a single good reason for any worker, especially any union member, to vote against Barack Obama," he said. "And there is only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama and that's because he's not white."
Obama, the soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee, has a 98 percent pro-labor voting record, according to the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education. Few senators score higher.
On the other hand, not many senators have a lower COPE rating than John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate for president. His is 16 percent.
Even so, McCain expects to win over some Democrats – including union members – who voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's main rival in the presidential primaries.
The "straight talk" Republican would never admit it, of course. But it seems obvious the Clinton voters his campaign most has in mind are white people who rejected Obama because he's black.
Trumka talked about one of them in his speech. He said he met her when he returned to Nemacolin, Pa., his hometown, to vote in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary.
Trumka said he had known the woman for years. "She was active in Democratic politics when I was still in grade school…We got to talking, and I asked if she'd made up her mind who she was supporting, and she said, 'Oh absolutely, I'm voting for Hillary, there's no way that I'd ever vote for Obama.'"
Trumka said he asked her why not.
"She said, 'Well, he's a Muslim.'
"And I said, 'Well, actually, he's Christian just like you and I, but so what if he's Muslim.'
"Then she shook her head and said, 'He won't wear that American flag pin on his lapel.' And I looked at my lapel and said, 'I don't have one, and, by the way, you don't have one on either. But c'mon, he wears one plenty of times. He just says it takes more than wearing a flag pin to be patriotic.'"
The woman was unconvinced, claiming, "'Well, I just don't trust him,'" according to Trumka. "And I said, 'Why's that?' And she drops her voice a bit, and she said, 'Because he's black.'
"And I said, 'Look around this town. Nemacolin's a dying town. There're no jobs here. Our kids are moving away because there's no future here. And here's a man, Barack Obama, who's going to fight for people like us and you want to tell me that you won't vote for him because of the color of his skin – are you ought of your ever-loving mind, lady?'"
I suspect many, if not most, Clinton supporters, including union members, will follow the former First Lady's lead and get behind Obama. Even so, Trumka warned that "we can't tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of folks out there" like the bigot from his hometown.
They live in every state. They're in my hometown.
Mayfield has been dying a slow death for a long time. We just lost a huge tire plant. Before that, three clothing factories and a plant that made air compressors closed. Thousands of good union jobs disappeared.
But I know there are white people here who won't vote for Obama because he is black.
I imagine most of them, like the Pennsylvania woman, call themselves Christians.
I wonder what they're getting out of church. Growing up Presbyterian, I learned that prejudice is not a Christian value. Jesus said we are all God's children. Like a good parent, God loves us all the same.
Also in the Bible, Jesus admonishes us to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Christians call it the Golden Rule. But the same principle can be found in other religions, including Judaism and Islam.
Like Trumka, I wouldn't care if Obama were Muslim. I'll take a compassionate, open-minded person of any faith over a religious bigot any time.
It is mainly religious bigots, notably Internet nut jobs, who are spreading the lies that the Christian Obama is a Muslim who was sworn in as a senator on the Koran. One of my union brothers calls them "the Christian Taliban."
Anyway, I'd bet the farm that Obama would be the first person to say it is also wrong for anybody to vote against McCain just because he's a white man -- or vote against Clinton just because she's a white woman.
I'm sure Trumka would say the same thing.
While Trumka conceded that there are racists in the House of Labor, he added that "…the labor movement – imperfect as we are – is the most integrated institution in American life."
Convention delegate Jeff Wiggins of USW Local 9447-5 agreed. "Unions believe in 'do unto others,'" said Wiggins, a Baptist who is president of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and sits on the Kentucky State AFL-CIO Executive Board.
"But we don't just preach brotherhood and sisterhood," Wiggins added. "We practice it every day. In a union everybody is equal."
So what should union leaders do "to identify and reject the politics of race" in the House of Labor?
"Now, I don't think that we ought to be out there pointing fingers and calling them racists," Trumka said. "Instead, we need to educate them that if they care about holding on to their jobs, if they care about health care, if they care about their pensions and their homes – if they care about creating good jobs with clean energy, child care [and]…pay equity for women workers" they should vote for Obama.
It's as simple as crunching the numbers: Obama 98 is percent pro-labor; McCain is 16 percent.