The Fishtown Effect

month ago, Ben Smith, a writer for political blog and newspaper The Politico, posted a two-sentence blurb about Philly in his online column. Smith wrote:

An Obama supporter, who canvassed for the candidate in the working-class, white Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown recently, sends over an account that, in various forms, I’ve heard a lot in recent weeks.

“What’s crazy is this,” he writes. “I was blown away by the outright racism, but these folks are f***ing undecided. They would call him a n—-r and mention how they don’t know what to do because of the economy.”

Within a few days, that remark had spread across the Internet faster than a terrorist fist jab. Since primary season, race has been a central theme of this election. Reporters have probed white blue-collar and working-class Americans (and especially dyed-in-the-wool Democrats) endlessly on their feelings toward Barack Obama. But for all the polls and diner/bar interviews, relatively few whites have acknowledged race as a factor in their decision. Instead, those with concerns have cited Obama’s “inexperience,” saying that they don’t “trust” him, or that they don’t “know” him.

Those vague explanations, skeptics theorize, are covers for what boils down to simple racial prejudice. And so the less race comes up as an explicit factor, the more intimidating it seems. It’s the scary ghost of November Yet to Come.

Obama supporters have in particular worried about the so-called Bradley Effect. Named after a former Los Angeles mayor, the theory (and it is controversial) suggests that when a non-white candidate is running for office, white voters will lie to pollsters and say they support or are considering the candidate, when in reality the candidate has already lost their votes because of race. White voters, the theory concludes, are ashamed to admit prejudice.

In Fishtown, however, that model seems not to hold up.

After a year of speculation as to whether voters were prejudiced, in the last few weeks — since the campaigns zeroed in on white, blue-collar communities in Pennsylvania, really — people making casual, overtly racist statements suddenly started getting quoted in the papers.

Fishtown, as the anonymous canvasser observed, was sometimes a graphic example.

What he found even more surprising, though, was that these same people were considering voting for Obama.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking to people in Fishtown, and I’ve found much the same thing. Obama’s skin color is a problem for many white voters in Philly — but with the economy in ruins, they’re turning to Obama anyway. Call it the Fishtown Effect.

What this means for the general election might be pretty straightforward: Obama may win even the votes of prejudiced whites. But what, exactly, it says about race in Philadelphia — or America — is a lot harder to figure out.

In many ways, Fishtown is an old factory town — it just happens to have been swallowed by a major city. Despite recent gentrification, it remains a close-knit, old-school, blue-collar neighborhood, largely Irish Catholic, and very, very white. And it’s been hit hard in the last few decades.

“A lot of suburbanites suffer from white guilt. People in Fishtown don’t really suffer from white guilt,” explains Kenneth Milano, a lifelong resident and avid area historian. “You go to the local welfare office and what have you, it’s just as many whites as Hispanics and blacks at any other office.”

While many whites fled cities in the middle of the 20th century, Fishtowners stayed put. Old-timers take pride in how deep their families’ roots run. But sometimes old-school sentiment takes ugly turns.

“When I was a kid there was a firebombing in the neighborhood,” Milano remembers. “Black workers were moving a white family in, but rumors were that blacks were moving in and the home was firebombed.”

“We had a Ku Klux Klan in the neighborhood and everything,” he says, adding that he feels times have changed. “None of that exists today.”

It hasn’t all gone away, though. A newcomer to Philadelphia myself, the first place I lived was on East Boston Street, a quiet block right on the border between Fishtown, East Kensington and Port Richmond. I had lived there only three days when I first heard someone use the word “nigger.”

During the primaries, Fishtown went big-time for Hillary Clinton. According to an Obama volunteer who was canvassing the area at the time, racial overtones were sometimes obvious.

“We had this one woman come out. … Before I could open my mouth she said she didn’t vote for — I don’t know if she said black people or the N-word,” she recalls.

The volunteer whose observations were picked up by Politico — he agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, so let’s call him Joe the Canvasser — had a similar experience during the general election.

“They dropped the N-bomb right off the bat,” he says. “Some of the most graphic descriptions came out of the mouths of little old ladies. There was one lady … dropping it almost casually — ‘Oh, the nigger?'”

What really shocked Joe, though, was that even despite that kind of language, a lot of people seemed ambivalent, even open to voting for Obama.

Consider Patrick McGowan, a union carpenter whom I met at Murph’s bar on Girard, just a block down from the Fishtown for Obama office. McGowan said he was voting for Obama.

“Everyone’s voting for him,” he said.

Would race be an obstacle?

“Not at all — not for anybody who’s a working man paying taxes,” he assured, adding: “First of all, he’s not all black. And maybe if a black person gets in there to be president, it’ll keep all the crybabies from crying discrimination.”

McGowan, like many of the Fishtowners I spoke with, was ready to assess Obama on his merits as a candidate, even as he viewed blacks in general as a monolithic, possibly hostile group.

Another man, a retired blue-collar worker and lifetime Fishtowner who declined to give his name — let’s call him Jim the Fishtowner — struck a similar tone, though he viewed a potential Obama administration as more problematic.

“It’s not that he’s black,” Jim insisted. “But it’s what the blacks will do if he wins, that’s what bothers me. … If Obama wins, the blacks are gonna say, ‘We’re taking charge, he’s our president.’ You know how they get.”

Jim was convinced Obama would be a better president than McCain. But he couldn’t let go of an almost tribal mind-set.

“When Wilson Goode burnt down half of Southwest Philadelphia, they re-elected him — because of color,” he said.

Much of the national dialogue about race in this election has centered around whether people are or are not racist. But in Fishtown, at least, the question just isn’t that simple. Maybe people are just voting out of calculated self-interest, but leaving old racial prejudices in place. Maybe race remains a factor, but a less important one than it used to be. Or maybe this is what racial healing looks like — gradual and tortured. Talking to Jim, one thing was clear: He was torn.

“I don’t know,” he said, sounding exasperated. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Plenty of Fishtowners, of course, will vote for Obama.

“It don’t matter what color he is — it really don’t,” said an enthusiastic Theresa Little, on the 2400 block of Letterly.


d there are reasons Fishtowners might vote for McCain that have nothing to do with race: “I’m a practicing Catholic, so there’s a lot of things about me that are very conservative, like [I’m] pro-life,” says Milano, the historian. “People associate whites with racism even if they’re not voting for a black guy because they simply disagree with his policies.”

Still, Obama’s policies are much closer to Clinton’s than McCain’s. It’s telling that so many voters in Fishtown remain undecided.

On a cold afternoon last week, three volunteers from the Obama office on East Girard headed into the heart of Fishtown to find these voters. They were armed with clipboards listing newly registered and still-undecided voters; each registered voter they spoke to, they assigned a number — “1” for those who support Obama, “2” for those who are leaning, and “3” for undecideds.

Walking door to door, volunteer Tom Bayne is received politely. Many people say that yes, they’re voting Obama, but do so quietly, sometimes even glancing down the street first.

“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t want my neighbors to know,'” Bayne says. “I want to tell them, ‘Your neighbors said that, too!'”

In Fishtown, political correctness isn’t a priority. People who have long been part of a close-knit, white community seem to worry more about being seen as traitors.

“It’s kind of like a reverse Bradley Effect,” Bayne says.

“Fishtown is a white community, it’s always been a white community,” explains Nick Herzog, who lives on the 800 block of Almond Street. Listed as an undecided in the volunteers’ notes, he says he still hasn’t made up his mind — but that he’s probably voting for Obama.

“I figure, he can’t do no more worse than Bush,” he says, adding, a little sheepishly, “maybe it’s about time we voted for a colored person.”

As a volunteer walks away from Herzog’s home, he changes the number beside the voter’s name from a “3” to a “2.”

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