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Pa. Voters Reflect on Obama's Race Speech

At George's Family Restaurant in Aliquippa, Pa., residents discussed Obama's speech on race. On April 22, Pennsylvania holds the next state primary.
Thomas Pierce, NPR
At George's Family Restaurant in Aliquippa, Pa., residents discussed Obama's speech on race. On April 22, Pennsylvania holds the next state primary.
At breakfast at George's Family Restaurant, Peter Eartano, standing, says he was impressed by Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) speech on race Tuesday.
Thomas Pierce, NPR /
At breakfast at George's Family Restaurant, Peter Eartano, standing, says he was impressed by Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) speech on race Tuesday.
The Obama speech on race made headlines in Aliquippa's local newspaper, the <em>Beaver County Times.</em>
Thomas Pierce, NPR /
The Obama speech on race made headlines in Aliquippa's local newspaper, the Beaver County Times.

Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) speech on race made the front page of newspapers across the country, including the Beaver County Times in western Pennsylvania.

The paper is on sale at George's Family Restaurant in the town of Aliquippa, located just outside of Pittsburgh, where the same voters who will help decide Pennsylvania's April 22 primary are busy discussing Obama's candidacy — and what he did and did not mention in his speech on race Tuesday in Philadelphia.

What originally led Obama to give his speech was the negative publicity surrounding the remarks of his former pastor in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Among other statements, Wright told his parishioners that the United States brought on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Jerry Holter, 68, is a retired public utilities manager who calls himself a conservative Democrat. Holter says he understands why Obama used the speech to condemn the words of his former pastor but not the pastor himself.

"He has a lot of history with that guy, and he probably has a lot of real good qualities. But when you take some of the things he is shouting about, it's not too good," he said.

Jim Deluca, 71, sits next to Holter. A former teacher who once played football at Penn State, Deluca says the videos of Obama's former pastor forced the candidate's hand.

"He [Obama] had to do something. He had to do something with Rev. Wright's publicity," he said.

One part of the speech that bothered Holter was when Obama noted that he had even heard racist language from his white grandmother as he was growing up, even though Obama stressed that he never doubted his grandmother's love.

"I don't know if I'd do that to my grandmother," Holster said. "I don't know if I'd say those things about my grandmother. I don't think he needed to do that."

Across the table, Bill Zorn, a retired steel worker, watches his friends go back-and-forth. Zorn is a registered Republican who says he, for one, was impressed.

"No one has ever gotten up there and given a speech like that on racism," he said. "What it accomplishes today you can't measure, but what I think is that some of these people are going to sit back and let them look at themselves."

One booth over, Pete Eritano, 69, a retired union official who says he is still undecided in the primary, offered more praise for Obama.

"I think he showed a lot of maturity in how he handled the situation — a very, very explosive situation to begin with — and I think he showed a lot of maturity. And that tells me he might be ready for the job," he said.

But that only prompted more caution from Deluca.

"Like I say, to hear him speak, sounds wonderful. But you don't know his background — and what's coming up is his background," he said.

Pennsylvania is typically seen as a stronghold for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Polls show Obama running behind her in the state, though he still holds a sizeable delegate lead overall.

It had been anticipated that the economy and the war would be the dominant issues for discussion preceding Pennsylvania's primary. But following Tuesday's speech and the reaction at Georges Family Restaurant, look for the subject of race to take a prominent place at the table as well.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.