Like it or not, race is a factor

It’s out there.

Regardless of the protests over U.S. Rep. John Murtha’s remark Wednesday that Western Pennsylvania was "a racist area" — and his subsequent apology — many people who live in this region believe Sen. Barack Obama’s skin color will be a factor in this election.

One of them is John Kashin, of Mount Pleasant.

Over a lunchtime hamburger and a beer at Perry’s Pub and Grille in Greensburg, the 33-year old, who works for a window manufacturing company, described himself as "not exactly a racist person. But I am not ready for a black president and I don’t think the country is."

Asked why, he hesitated.

"From my experience growing up, I’ve grown up around white people so maybe I’m not that comfortable around blacks. I’ve had negative run-ins with minorities. They were not good experiences. They get on an ego power trip and say ‘I’m here, now do something, you owe me.’ "

Across Greensburg’s main street, at a coffee shop, Brandon Allshouse, 20, said he’s voting for John McCain "because he’s a Christian. Obama is not. I heard he’s a Muslim and that he took the oath of office on the Quran."

Told that was untrue, he shook his head in disbelief. "It’s what I’ve heard and what my whole family has heard."

At the Hot Metal Diner in West Mifflin, George Opsitos, 68, predicted Obama may lose the election because of his color.

"People aren’t saying anything, but when it comes time to vote, there are people who will never vote for a black man or a woman," the 68-year-old Munhall resident said.

Obama, he added, "is snooty, arrogant, elitist. As this thing goes along he acts like he’s won it. He’s got this attitude, you know?"

As election day draws closer, and with leading GOP Sen. John McCain in the polls, pundits, politicians and pollsters have been wondering whether the first African-American Democratic nominee for president may in fact lose the election.

"Any American politician who says (racism) isn’t a factor in this presidential race is lying or really stupid," said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. "It’s out there, and it’s an issue in this campaign."

Consider the "Bradley effect" — when, in 1982, Tom Bradley, the first black man to be elected mayor of Los Angeles, lost the governor’s race even though he led in voter opinion polls by substantial margins. Some experts believe that voters simply weren’t willing to tell pollsters they wouldn’t vote for a black man.

Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia, barely won in 1989 even though polls showed him way ahead.

Deval Patrick, a black man who won the Massachusetts governor’s race in 2006 by predicted margins, can barely contain his personal exasperation at the current preoccupation with Obama’s race and how it will affect him 18 days from now.

"We are all wound up trying to predict what’s going to happen before it happens," he said in an interview earlier this week while campaigning in Pittsburgh for Obama. "I won every county in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, by a lot, and our African-American population is less than 8 percent."

Dr. Larry E. Davis, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, believes that "what’s happening in America is that race is becoming less important," at least among a younger generation of voters, "and I think this Obama phenomenon is proof of that."

"I’m a little uncomfortable just painting this broad brush of conservatism with the word racism — these people are more conservative about their views of the world, period," Davis said.

While age and class play roles in people’s racial attitudes, regional considerations have to be factored in, too. In Western Pennsylvania, he noted, demographic studies show whites here are worse off than whites in other areas when it comes to income, education, mental health, criminal justice, status of families and race relations.

Still, he said, "I think we have to acknowledge that millions of white people are voting for this guy and that’s commendable. It used to be a foregone conclusion that the whole state of Pennsylvania would not have voted for a black candidate, but now we’re talking about portions of the state, and that’s progress. "

E-mail Mackenzie Carpenter at mcarpenter(at) and Mark Roth at mroth(at)