“Ground Game” in PA: Anti-Racist Organizing

Pennsylvania has rather infamously been described as “Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in the middle.”  After Obama’s win, there’s a lot of armchair-quarterbacking going on, a good deal of it has to do with the “ground game,” which refers to those community-organizing strategies like knocking on doors, contacting people in person, by phone, and wherever they happen to be hanging out to engage them about the candidate.  As just one of dozens of examples, last night Jake Tapper of ABC was talking about Pennsylvania as “the big prize” for the Obama campaign.  In his on-air analysis, he suggested that the winning strategies of the campaign were focusing on economy and paying attention to the “ground game.”  Following Tapper’s analysis, ABC commentators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopolous agreed and went on to praise the Obama campaign for their “ground game.”   If you lift the hood and look at what this actually involved in those face-to-face and door-to-door conversations, it looks a lot like anti-racist organizing.

This American Life has an episode called, “The Ground Game” (from 10/24) that illustrates what I mean by this.  The segment called “Union Halls,” features the really admirable efforts of Richard Trumka (image from Wikipedia).   Here’s the description of the segment from the show’s website:

No one much likes to talk about it out loud, but everyone knows it’s true: There are a lot of people out there who say they won’t vote for Obama because he’s black. To fight this problem, Richard Trumka, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, has been traveling around the country giving a speech to fellow union members. It ends with a plea: You must stand up, and deal with race directly. Talk about it. Producer Lisa Pollak spent a month hanging out with union members, eavesdropping on their conversations, to see if Trumka’s directive was working.

They way they’ve framed this story is interesting: “What no one much likes to talk about but everyone knows it’s true…” is that there’s racism.    True enough, “no one much likes to talk about it,” it’s part of why we maintain this blog.  And, less true, “everyone knows it’s true,” there seems to be a lot of protestations to the contrary (but that’s the subject for another post).   The seventeen-and-a-half-minute segment is worth listening to in full and you can listen to it here (link opens to the full length episode, this is “Act Three,” about 25 minutes in).   What you learn from listening to Trumka’s story, and the story of lost of union members who worked hard in the “ground game” confronting and cajoling people about their racism.  As a union leader, Trumka developed something of his own stump speech, that was an impassioned call to anti-racism for union members.    In that speech, Trumka is plainspoken about the racism he’s encountered:

“We can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there, a lot of them are good union people, who just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man.”

From my perspective, there has been – and continues to be – a great deal of “tap dancing” around the issue of racism, including discussion of the “ground game” that doesn’t explicitly acknowledge this kind of direct engagement with people’s racism (such as the ABC report above).  Another story that Trumka uses in his speech and that makes it into the radio segment linked above is this one:

“This woman walks up to me. I’d known her for a long time, and I ask her ‘Have you decided who you gonna vote for?’ ”

“There’s no way I’d ever vote for Barack Obama,” the woman responded.

Trumka said he pressed her as to why. First, she said it’s because Obama is “a Muslim.” Trumka responded that Obama is actually a Christian.

Then, she told him Obama never wears an American flag pin on his lapel. Trumka told her that, too, is false, then asked her why she wasn’t wearing one if that is such an important issue.

Trumka said he continued to push, until “her eyes dropped down and she said to me, ‘Well, he’s a black man.’ ”

Trumka said he told her to look around at their town, the mining community where they both had lived for so long. “And I said to her, ‘This town is dying — literally dying.’ ”

“Our kids are moving away because there’s no future here,” Trumka said in the United Steelworkers convention address. “And here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s going to fight for people like us, and you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?”

It wasn’t only union leaders like Trumka that engaged in this anti-racism political organizing, it was rank-and-file union members.   This sort of one-on-one engagement with people about their racism is a good part of what’s euphemistically described as the “ground game.”  And, this is just the kind of thing we need in this new era.


  1. I recently heard an interview with Trumpka and some of his field workers – super impressive. I like the fact that there was no dancing around racism and I liked some of the insights that were shared by people he and his organizers reached- that they, in fact, were racist, hand’t realized it, and didn’t want to be (in a few cases). I think the lessons of indivdualized contact and messaging is important.

    Its a lot harder to espouse hatred when you are face to face with someone advocating as an ally.

    I kind of feel like that is the approach I took with folks around Prop 8 here in California. I took that one-on-one approach making linkages between the anti-misegenation laws, erosion of civil liberties and the human costs on the ground as it were.

  2. Jessie Author

    I agree, Zombie Mom, he’s a very impressive guy. I think Trumka and those union folks in PA are some of the real heroes of this election. And, it’s a good thing they did all that work, ‘cuz now racism is over (tongue firmly planted in cheek). I also think the face-to-face, this is who your laws are harming sort of organizing, is a good strategy for combating the Prop8-hate. Clearly, there needs to be a lot more of that.

  3. Not only that, but Obama’s people themselves, especially in Ohio were open to directly confronting the racism as well, even as they steered conversation to the economy. Several months back, I consulted with the Ohio folks by phone and in a memo, after being approached by them, for precisely the purpose of figuring out how to deal with race on the trail. I was clear: they couldn’t dance around it, so that even when they were wanting to talk about the economy, they had to deal with the white bonding that threatened to render class appeals meaningless. From all I know, they did a lot of what I recommended (and what I think many of them wanted to do anyway, but were looking for some ratification of that as a strategy). So I think in several places, white folks ended up doing antiracist organizing, if only by default, but learned a lot in the process. I know from talking to campaigners for Obama that they had their eyes opened a lot during this election cycle, not just to the persistence of racism, but the potentialities of antiracism, both of which bode well for future work!

  4. Joe

    Trumka’s comments and organizing actions, and the voting actions of many whites a weeks ago, do suggest Derrick Bell’s Interest Convergence hypothesis: Many whites who think and act in racist terms in their everyday lives saw/see we are in a near-depression condition in which only the Democratic programs of people like Senator Obama have a chance to overcome our huge housing and economic difficulties. In this case their interests converged with those of a Black man who is one of the smartest Americans around. It takes a lot to overcome the white racist framing.

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