Why Clinton Won In Indiana
Wednesday - May 14, 2008
On primary election night 2008, the television networks refused to call the outcome of the Democratic presidential primary balloting until late in the evening. The hold-up took place in two or three counties in the northwestern corner of Indiana - counties that included the rust-belt city of Gary and the suburbs that housed its present and former labor force.
Despite Hillary Clinton’s lead throughout the night, the network’s statisticians thought that Gary - with a population 84 percent African American - might, in the end, put Obama over the top.
It didn’t happen, and I think I know why.
I was born in Gary and spent the first 14 years of my life in one of its suburbs. My family left East Gary, Ind., in 1958. During my youth there, it was a working class town whose residents drew their sustenance from Gary’s seven miles of steel - simultaneously the backbone and breadbasket of the region.
Gary was multiracial; it gave the nation a brawling, middle-weight boxer named Tony Zale and a singing group called the Jackson Brothers. Its yearly regional basketball tournaments were raucous affairs in which teams from all-black high schools met teams from all-white high schools and from high schools that contained both blacks and whites.
But East Gary was white, mostly first and second generation European immigrants with names like Spanoplous and Halaschak, Jackich and Petrozelli, with a smattering of what we called, in those politically incorrect days, “hillbillies.”
You can imagine what we called the blacks who lived in Gary proper. In fact, I don’t remember racial epithets being used much because kids in East Gary had little, if any, contact with blacks. Restrictive covenants kept African-American families from buying the modest homes in our modest suburb. They lived in their own neighborhoods in Gary proper.
I’ve been back to East Gary three times in the last half century. Twice I was in the company of one of my brothers, both of whom drove through quickly, noting little save that everything looked smaller than it had when we were kids.
I made my third pilgrimage in the summer of 2006, driving down from Southwestern Michigan, finding my family’s two-bedroom home and walking the route I had taken to school for eight years.
Columbus School had been leveled, replaced by a park. There, I stopped and watched a half dozen black youths playing a game of half-court basketball.
Later I visited an old school-mate, a bachelor, retired from more than 30 years in the mills and living in the house in which he’d been reared. A small raised swimming pool sat in the back yard, where he and I had once played.
We looked at old yearbooks, talked about classmates - some of whom I remembered well, some of whom I pretended that I remembered. Despite the vagaries of memory, it was a delightful visit. “Next time I visit my family in Michigan, I’ll stop in again,” I pledged. “We’ll go out to dinner.”
My old schoolmate grew solemn: “Well, I may not be here, in this house,” he said. “You know, Dan, the place is changing. A lot of Hispanics and blacks are moving in.” He mentioned a suburb farther from Gary, farther from Hispanics and blacks, a suburb that wasn’t yet “changing.”
Exit polls in Indiana showed that 70 percent of whites over the age of 65 in Lake County - and everywhere else - went for Clinton over Obama. They were Clinton’s strongest constituency, stronger even than women.
For whites over the age of 65, race still matters. The rantings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright matter. The black kids playing basketball in the park of the previously all-white suburb matter. And the African ancestry of the decidedly upper middle class, highly literate Barack Obama matters.
Obama will be the Democratic presidential nominee. And he will be competitive among young voters and voters in upper middle class suburban neighborhoods far enough from the metro cores that they are not yet “changing.”
But with an Obama candidacy, Democrats must worry about a racial glass ceiling, one created by fear and age and isolation in all-white suburbs.
That part of Lake County, some 45 percent of its vote, went with Sen. Clinton. It may very well go with Sen. McCain in the fall.
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