Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Race and Politics in Youngstown

Last week’s election was important on many levels, but this week on Lincoln Avenue, we’re focusing on the local. My guest, Mike Morley, has been active in Mahoning Valley politics for more than two decades. In our conversation, he reflects on what the presidential and local elections tell us about the issues and changes in our community.

Race was a central topic of conversation leading up to the election, and as Morley explains, it almost certainly played a role in the local area. As Morley notes, Tom Letson and Bob Hagan were almost certainly on target when they pointed out that racism might well keep some whites from voting for Barack Obama. On the other hand, a higher percentage of whites voted for Obama in this election than voted for Kerry in 2004. More African-Americans voted, period, probably more than have voted in any prior election. So did more younger voters and more first-time voters. Indeed, while voter turnout in Ohio was less than predicted, it was still incredibly high. 70% of registered voters went to the polls in Mahoning County. It’s likely that the increased turn out, including the presence of more black voters, helped pass the WRTA and Youngstown City Schools levies.

At the same time, as Morley points out, racial divisions continue to shape local politics and impede our efforts to create change in this community. We may not be able to change that by challenging racism. Too often, as the Letson and Hagan story suggests, that just generates resistance and self-righteousness. Instead, we may need to focus on building leadership from within groups that have been left out of local politics. That means helping African-Americans to prepare to run for local offices, but it also means helping younger people do the same.

Indeed, what I appreciated most in Morley’s comments in our interview was his closing call to action, reminding us that anyone can get involved. Influencing local politics begins by just showing up, as so many voters did last week.

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