Others are Looking at Us, We need to Look at Ourselves

By Sherry Linkon and John Russo

In the past few weeks, the Mahoning Valley has been visited by journalists from all across the United States and abroad.  We’ve talked with reporters from St. Louis, Japan, New York, Finland and elsewhere.  Stories focused on the local community have appeared in the New York Times and on National Public Radio, and more in the next week leading up to Tuesday’s Ohio primary.  As in presidential elections for the past 30 years, the Mahoning Valley is ground zero for reporting about working-class voters and economic issues.

Jonathan Kauffman, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is just one of the journalists we’ve helped research stories lately.  His recent front page story, “White Men Hold Key for Democrats: Contest May Hinge on Blue Collar Vote; Opening for McCain,” explored the political views of a variety of local workers, from steelworkers to prison guards to a cook at a local bar.  He also talked with local politicians and community leaders.  Along with highlighting concerns about the local economy, the story quoted some local workers saying that they won’t support Barack Obama because he’s black, while others say they won’t vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s female.

While Kauffman follows the well-established media pattern of defining the area almost entirely by its history and its economic struggles, he goes beyond merely identifying racism and sexism among working-class voters to show how these attitudes are rooted in history and experience:  the Mahoning Valley has a long (and continuing) history of racial segregation, embraces traditional family values, and has experienced repeated and widespread plant closings and downsizing.  These experiences generate and perpetuate attitudes of racism and sexism.  In other words, as his story shows, these attitudes are not “natural” to the working class; they are responses to what has happened to the community.

Kauffman’s article set off lively discussion on local blogs and e-mail lists about how he represents the local community.  Everyone is tired of stories that repeat the familiar tale of our economic struggles, but this story generated additional concerns about how the attitudes of some local workers made the whole community look bad.  While a few complained that the article featured “the dumbest people in Youngstown,” others raised critical questions about how we can challenge and change the area’s patterns of racism and sexism.

Stories about racism and sexism among working-class people can give well-educated professionals the opportunity to feel smug about how enlightened “we” are and how stupid “they” are.  As we point out to every journalist who comes to this community to write about the working class, neither these attitudes nor the experiences that foster them are unique to Youngstown or Warren.  Nor are they unique to the working class. Racism and sexism exist among the middle class and professionals, as well.

We have seen this in the Mahoning Valley.  A few years ago, after giving a talk about Youngstown’s history and how the area has been portrayed in the national media, we were told by a group of local leaders from outside of the city that the real problem is that “those people” who run the largely African-American, working-class city are incompetent and corrupt.  They suggested burning the entire city of Youngstown to the ground – that, they claimed, was the only solution.  That’s racism and classism coming from well-educated civic leaders, the kind of people who are supposed to know better.  Too many smart people in this community hold such views. Happily, many others are working hard to fight inequality and challenge such attitudes.

Earlier this year, we spoke with a YSU student about the racial and class divisions that he sees among those who are working so hard to promote Youngstown.  He commented that they didn’t seem very interested in the problems and realities of the working class and people of color.  As he put it, all this focus on bringing new restaurants to downtown and promoting high tech businesses doesn’t help the young poor black kids trying to figure out a reason why they should take school seriously.  We share that concern.  As we argue in Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, unless this community overcomes its history of racism, sexism, and classism and makes a real commitment to addressing the needs of all members of our community, we will never achieve our economic potential.  The same is true for all Americans.

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Sherry Linkon and John Russo are the Co-Directors for the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. 

Appeared in the Warren Tribune Chronicle on March 3, 2008