“All eyes in the country, in the world, are on Pennsylvania right now,” the bright-eyed volunteer staffing the front desk at Obama’s Philadelphia headquarters told me. “We’re making history here; people are talking about issues they wouldn’t have been talking about for another fifty years if Barack wasn’t running.”
For the hundreds of young college graduates who have flocked to the state to work on Obama’s campaign, this is the accepted creed. Yet in some of the more deprived parts of Philadelphia, his candidacy seems to have had a retrogressive effect. While vibrant murals across the city commemorate America’s civil rights heroes, in the south district I was dispatched to one could be forgiven for wondering whether the movement had ever happened at all.
Residents tell me that race relations had been improving here since the mid-90s, but Obama’s decision to run seems to have fanned the flames of discord. Although South Philly’s ethnic makeup is diverse, different racial groups have always lived in conspicuously separate zones. In the predominantly white working class neighbourhoods, Obama canvassers report having doors almost uniformly shut on them, and black campaigners have increasingly become targets of abuse and intimidation in the streets. One 45-year-old black volunteer told me it’s getting as bad now as it was when she was a little girl and she used to get “chased down the road to school”.
Team leaders privately admit they are up against some tough demographics in the tight-knit Irish and Italian wards. “Barack Obama–doesn’t he belong on an island somewhere?” One man at a fruit stall asked me. “Tell you what, if he wins, I’m going back to Italy. And I’ve only been here 78 years.”
This attitude is typical of many who have lived in the district for generations and remain mistrustful of outsiders. Several volunteers bussed down from Brooklyn, New York were briskly told to “take a hike”, and my British accent also became a potential issue. When Obama came to town for a rally, I was firmly instructed not to speak to any reporters — my colleagues feared that local journalists would start writing about how Obama was shipping in volunteers because he lacked “home-grown support.”
But he may command more home-grown support than his seven point poll deficit suggests. Ed Jude of South Philly Windows claims there are plenty of white people here who do support Obama, but they are keeping their opinions to themselves; the opposite of the “New Hampshire syndrome”. In New Hampshire, when Obama lost despite polling a double-digit lead, one explanation offered was that middle-class white voters said they supported him (in keeping with the fashionable liberal values), but didn’t actually vote for him. In South Philadelphia, on the other hand, if you’re white and you do intend to vote for a black man, it’s either fashionable or prudent to say otherwise.
While Jude’s theory is difficult to prove, it’s a fact that Obama’s visible support is overwhelmingly black. The children from South Philadelphia High School who stop by the office to collect buttons are all black. Cornell, a 20 year old studying business management at the local community college, came in to make phone calls after class because Obama was against the war – “and because he’s black too of course”. Campaigners expect to win up to 90 per cent of the African American vote in this area.
And yet this too may be a dangerous assumption. Many in the older black community remain sceptical. Few framed it in the terms of one man who seemed to remember the turmoil of the 1960s all too vividly: “Barack may be a good man, but they’re never going to let him in the White House. They’ll kill him first.” But many are wary of voting for him simply because they’ve never been given any reason to believe in the political process before. “Those folks up in City Hall are all the same – just the law breakin’ the law,” as one lady put it. “Why should this young fellow be any different?”
After encountering the stagnant piles of rotting garbage lying in her street, it’s easy to understand her apathy. The municipal authorities, either through corruption or incompetence, have not arranged for the rubbish to be collected for months. On top of the well-publicised problems of chronically underfunded public schools, gang violence and a crumbling healthcare system, people’s lives here are blighted by shockingly basic problems.
Philadelphia is notorious for corrupt politics, and this legend was borne out on my very first day in the South Philly office, when a pinstriped local Italian politician paid us a visit. The man promised he could “deliver the 1st precinct [an area where Obama is expected to do very badly] as long as the money is right”. He assured us that there was a lot of “street money” to be had in the city, and that harnessing it was the only way to deliver the results we wanted. It soon transpired the gentleman in question had done three years in federal prison for voter fraud. My colleagues politely declined his offer.
The state of Pennsylvania has been hit hard by manufacturing job losses, and Obama has tempered his lofty rhetoric accordingly. In a speech delivered to Philadelphia’s convention centre at the end of a statewide tour, he talked of the “silent crisis” Pennsylvanians had been suffering long before the recent economic downturn began to bite elsewhere. “People have been squeezed,” he said. “It’s time to restore their hope.” Implicit in his message of hope is the idea that he is the only candidate who can heal the country’s racial wounds. “I’ll bet there aren’t many meetings in Philadelphia that look like this,” he said to the packed hall of supporters.
Esther, a young mother who queued for hours to hear Obama speak, firmly believes he represents a genuine groundswell of Americans “coming together and trying to be more than we have been in a long time”. She may well be right. But on present evidence, it’s going to take a lot more time, and a lot more trying.