Immigration, race, economics, white identity politics: these are the issues that are shaping the trajectory of national politics in 2008. As the S family made its way through the 2008 Tour de Rustbelt, I could not help but reflect on the intersection of these issues. They rose at every bend in the road.
Immigration has transformed many American cities, but the process has been very uneven. Dotted throughout the Great Plains are small towns, mostly those with meatpacking plants, that have been magnets for Latin American immigrants and, more recently, INS raids. For most of the last eighty years, Mexican American farm laborers have harvested cherries in northern Michigan, soybeans and sugar beets in the central part of the state, tomatoes and corn in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and other crops here and there. But for the most part, these workers are transient. But vast stretches of the Midwest are virtually free of immigrants. Detroit and Cleveland, for example, have tiny populations of Asians and Latin American newcomers (although Detroit's Mexicantown, the long-standing West Side settlement of Mexican immigrants, while small in population, is probably the city's most vital neighborhood shopping district). But in Detroit, immigrants tend to gravitate to suburban destinations: Detroit has one of the largest Arab-speaking populations outside the Middle East, most of them live in Dearborn or, if they are Chaldean (Christian Iraqi), they live in one of a handful of northern suburbs. Altogether they comprise a visible but relatively small segment of the population of the metropolitan area.
But there are a few places on the Tour de Rustbelt where the impact of immigration has been extraordinary. One is Chicago, a city which saw its population grow during the 1990s largely because of the influx of the foreign-born. Whole West Side business districts are pulsing with life because of the rapid growth of the Latino population there. But the Hispanic presence is visible even in the city's mostly white neighborhoods in the countless little taquerias and bodegas on busy streets. The Latin Americanization of Chicago is also visible in the faces of the restaurant workers (even in two Asian restaurants that we visited), in the service staff in downtown hotels and office buildings, and in the landscapers we saw on our one trip to the wealthy northern suburb of Highland Park. Chicago's Asian population is also substantial, even if the Windy City is no Los Angeles. We bought tiffins in the fabulous Indian/Pakistani shopping district on Devon Street (for you non-Chicagoans, it's pronounced duh-von). And we had probably the best Vietnamese meal I have ever eaten at a little storefront restaurant on Argyle Street, a small but longstanding southeast Asian enclave in the Uptown section of the city.
Immigration is the sign of a city's health. Quantifying the impact of immigration on urban economies is difficult: cities with vital economies (with certain exceptions) tend to be magnets for immigrants and immigration seems to build and on fuel economic expansion. It's clear that troubled cities like Detroit and Cleveland have little to offer to foreign-born newcomers and the demographic and economic impact of immigration, as a result, has been small there.
The influx of Latinos has also transformed one of the whitest, most conservative parts of Michigan: the area around Holland and Muskegon, two cities of modest size along the Lake Michigan coast about three hours from Chicago. This part of the state, home to Dutch Calvinists, is the stomping ground of the DeVos and Hoekstra families and other warhorses of the Republican party. It's a staunchly conservative place. But the influx of Hispanic immigrants has turned this white, blonde region into a much browner one.
But outside these places, the upper Midwest is an overwhelmingly white place. As we headed "up North," to the gorgeous northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula, home to the extraordinary and undervisited Great Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the countryside grew more beautiful, the towns more touristy and prosperous, and the landscape reminiscent of New England. I saw more Obama signs posted in the wealthy, lakeside communities of Leelanau Country than I did anywhere else on our trip except the city of Chicago.
Northern Michigan is white. Very, very white. For over a week, we saw no one but white people, a few Jamaican temporary workers on touristy Mackinac Island excepted. When we left the northwestern corner of the state, where wealthy executives, doctors, and lawyers from Chicago and Detroit have their summer houses, we quickly moved into the vast stretches of white, blue-collar northern Michigan. In the small towns and cottage communities, we saw nary an Obama sign, but quite a few McCain posters. It was traveling through these places, where fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and ATV-riding are the sports of preference, that gave me pause about the outcome of the upcoming presidential race. The upper reaches of Michigan are distant geographically and politically from Detroit, but the city is very much in the consciousness of residents there. It's big, it's bad, and it's black. And they are mostly glad to keep their distance.
The culmination of the Tour de Rustbelt was five days at my parent's house in an understatedly beautiful, really untouristed part of the state, the area along Lake Huron. There's not much to attract the out-of-state visitor there. The three nearest towns, Cheboygan, Rogers City, and Onaway offer little to tourists. Onaway, a place that saw its heyday during the lumber boom more than a century ago, is a particularly dreary little town with a poverty rate of over 25 percent. This is a part of Michigan that, because of its isolation and the relative affordability of its properties has long attracted blue-collar workers. Just a fifteen minute drive from my parents' house is Black Lake, the UAW summer camp (UAW president Walter Reuther and architect Oskar Stonorov were killed in a plane crash on their way back from Black Lake in 1970). Black Lake introduced many autoworkers to our little corner of up North and they and their friends, like my parents' near-neighbors, the retired Ford worker who just clad his cinder block cottage with vinyl siding and the retired Detroit cop who likes to fish and hunt, have given this corner of northern Michigan their own distinctive stamp. That said, the disaster of Bush-era economic policy is acutely felt here. My parents spend somewhere between $8 and $10 for gas, just to go grocery shopping or to go to church on Sunday. Everything is at least 20 miles away.
No place better captures the essence of white, blue-collar northern Michigan than favorite up North watering hole--one of the most characterful bars in all of America: the 211 in Black Lake. Its menu is simple, cheap, and really good: amazing pizza, fresh whitefish and perch, big hamburgers, and cold draft lager by the pitcher. The setting is even better: pine-paneled walls adorned with a variety of taxidermied animals and trophy fish. On the wall of the 211 is a board where union members scribble the numbers of their local and sometimes a slogan or two. It was there, at a bar where Sarah Palin would certainly feel at home, that I ate dinner the night that John McCain announced that she would be his VP candidate. The all-white crowd (I've never seen a person of color in the 211--I wonder where black UAW members go out for dinner) was buzzing: the young family next to us was talking about the novelty of a woman candidate, the two older couples (who were surely Republicans) sitting across from us waxed enthusiastic when the picture of Palin and her rifle appeared on the 211's big screen TV. There was not a lot of skepticism in that room.
Spending the week of the Democratic convention with my parents was a challenge. Whenever she got the chance, my mother switched the TV to Fox News, because it offered, in her words, the only "unbiased" coverage of the convention. My seven-year old son made a snide comment about George Bush (he's yucky) and got an upbraiding from his grandmother. CNN was too liberal for her. We finally compromised and watched the uninterrupted proceedings on C-Span. My dad, who hasn't voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, found Biden and Obama impressive speakers (and he's usually not so charitable), but in a moment of candor, he called the Democratic nominee "Osama." They were wowed by Sarah Palin.
There's something deeper and more troubling to me about the buzz about McCain and Palin that I sensed in my humble corner Up North. I fear that a thin veneer of political rationalization covers up a lot of racial resentment. Commentators are, for the most part, afraid to talk much about race in this election. And most white voters know well enough to dodge the issue, at least in polite company and with pollsters. After watching both conventions, it became clear to me that whatever you think about the policy positions of Obama and McCain that the oft-repeated Republican line that Obama is all talk and no policy is just plain wrong. McCain's speech to the GOP convention was a rhapsody to change but it was completely devoid of policy substance. Whether you agree or disagree with Obama, the notion that he is full of uplifting words but no ideas cannot be borne out by the evidence.
But the argument that Obama is out-of-touch, elite, and substance-free serves one big political purpose. It gives white folks, like my parents and my dinner companions at the 211 bar, a guilt-free way to express their unease with the Democratic standard bearer. A lot of America is really white. Swing states have many enclaves of folks who should, for economic reasons, be Democrats. But I fear that the politics of personality that have dominated the last few weeks are deep down a new version of the politics of racial division. I hope I am wrong.