In a place that backed Trump, residents weigh racial divides
AP Photo/David Goldman
ROWLAND, N.C. (AP) — In Robeson County, North Carolina, the most diverse rural county in America, many often remark at how well residents have overcome the scars of slavery and segregation to get along. The community once was a manufacturing powerhouse dotted with textile factories that have mostly closed up and moved overseas. Last November, it flipped from voting reliably Democratic in presidential elections and backed Donald Trump.
Now some in the county are divided over racial equality, nationalism and Trump’s comments on Muslims and minorities. Many African-Americans in Robeson worry the country is veering in the wrong direction, and point to the president’s racially tinged tweets and rhetoric. But many of Trump’s supporters think the criticism is overblown or misplaced, and stand behind him and his pledge to revitalize struggling communities.
Here are some of the voices from a pro-Trump place whose population is split among African-Americans, Native Americans and whites:
“JUST THINK BEFORE YOU TWEET, MR. TRUMP”
The sun is just starting to peek through the windows, and Betty Pittman already has been working four hours – punching orders into the register, refilling coffee cup after coffee cup, occasionally trying to keep her employees from delving too far in to the goings-on in the national news. She likes to keep the conversation positive in her diner.
The day before, she worked 15 hours in this restaurant she bought after the factories she’d toiled in for decades closed up and moved overseas “due to NAFTA.” The 66-year-old probably has another 15-hour day ahead again today, and still she doesn’t make nearly as much as she did before the plants went away.
That’s why, after twice voting for Barack Obama, Pittman became a Donald Trump supporter.
She’d felt something shifting in this county that for generations was one of the most reliably Democratic in the country. Usually customers sit up at her counter and give their take on the news of the day. But as the campaign drew to a close last fall, people were unusually quiet. When she went to the polls, she demonstrates with a laugh, everyone was covering up their ballots, glancing over their shoulders so no one could see which candidate they were marking. She guessed they were voting for Trump and didn’t want to admit it.
A grandmother of three teens, Pittman, too, was hesitant, especially after the recording surfaced in which Trump bragged about groping women. But he promised to bring jobs back to communities like hers, along with a lost American spirit.
“His fingers react faster than his brain does. But he’s got good intentions,” she says. “Just think before you tweet, Mr. Trump.”
This workday is near the end of the month, when those on fixed incomes are scraping to get by until their next check comes in. Pittman knows the routine: people chose to eat either breakfast or lunch, because they can’t afford both. She could make more money if she charged more, but she knows most of her customers by face and, many, by which factory they used to work in and how their lives unspooled after they closed down.
“It’s traumatic to have your jobs go away … especially at our age.” So she keeps her prices low, and hopes Trump will help bring some relief.
Pittman lives in the most diverse rural county in America, and her employees and customers represent that spectrum. She worries about the divisive political climate in the country, pitting white vs. black, Democrat vs. Republican.
“I think about it. I pray about it. I’m hoping that we … will see that it’s pulling us apart. The president cannot do all of it by himself,” she says, changing the subject, because she likes to keep things positive in her diner.
“Anyway,” she says, “everything’s good.”
“ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY”
The two cooks stand at the grill, shoulder-to-shoulder, as the breakfast rush wanes and the customers start to clear out.
Merle Fields seizes on this slow moment to discuss his favorite topic: Donald Trump. “I agree with him: Let’s make America great again.”
Mitch Addison looks over and cocks an eyebrow. “This is great?” he asks. “America is not so great right now.”
They tick through their competing views of the world: Addison, an African-American, believes Trump has emboldened racists and cracked open the nation’s racial wounds.
“That’s that media’s fault,” counters Fields, a Native American.
“That’s not the media’s fault,” Addison says, before the two start debating a recent police shooting on the news.
“OK, OK, let’s save this for later,” chirps their boss at Betty Carol’s Diner. Employees and customers come from all walks of life in Robeson County. They are black, white and Native American. Republicans and Democrats. Trump supporters and Trump haters.
“Indians, we’re stuck in the middle, so we see both sides,” says Fields. “Everybody likes to play the race card, the race card, the race card.”
His ancestors faced discrimination, but he doesn’t see the value in holding it against anybody today. “You can’t move forward if you keep looking back.”
Waitress Judy Hunt lets out a long sigh.
She and Fields have worked together for years. They take their breaks together and poke fun at each other. Hunt’s granddaughter wails with excitement when she sees Fields. Yet Hunt, who is also Native American, can sometimes barely contain how much Trump upsets her.
“I think he’s doing a sorry job. I don’t like his attitude, the way he talks to people. He’s turning everybody against one another,” she says. “I’ve never seen the world this bad.”
Fields shrugs. “We’ve got to give him a chance. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and he just got into office and he stepped into a mess.”
They decided long ago to agree to disagree.
“We get into it all the time,” Fields says. “But she likes who she likes. I like who I like.”
“I just tell him what’s what and keep going,” Hunt replies.
“I COULDN’T PUT A WOMAN IN FOR PRESIDENT”
Horace Locklear hasn’t had a television in his house in 40 years. “I live like the old-timers,” he says.
He spends his days playing with his chickens and dogs, and toiling in his garden where he grows turnips, peas and collard greens. He talks to his wife of 53 years, whom he buried last year; he looks at her picture on the wall to discuss the day’s plans. He still has the flowers from her funeral laid out of her bed, and hasn’t yet brought himself to sit in her favorite chair.
Locklear prays, too, and he says a prayer every night and every morning for his country and for the president he helped put in office. Without a television or the internet, it’s hard to keep up sometimes with the rat-a-tat pace of the news.
“I hear this and I hear that, what he’s up to, but I don’t know.” So Locklear figures President Donald Trump is doing the best he can.
Locklear voted twice for Barack Obama and thinks he did a fine job. But: “I couldn’t put a woman in for president. My Bible teaches me different.”
He practices the Holiness faith, and he believes his wife, Quessie, felt the same about Hillary Clinton. Quessie never worked, and he promised her when they met that he’d take care of her all of her life, and he did. He remembers the first time he saw his wife. He was helping her father on his tobacco farm when he stopped by the house for a drink of water. He was 22, and it was “first-sight love.” He’s 75 now, and likes to live like they did back then. He’s never been to a hospital, not even on the day he was born.
Locklear, a Native American, considers how the world has changed – all the young people looking at their phones so much it’s impossible to talk to them, he says. Then there are the empty factories, the violence, the racial tension.
“It just seems like it keeps getting worse and worse all the time,” he says, but he is not surprised. “We’ve had killing since Cain and Abel, and it’s not going to stop until God ends it. So regardless of what Trump or any other president gets in there and says, we’re going to have it.”
“YOU’RE TELLING ME THAT’S NOT DIVIDING US?”
Robert Tolbert scrolled through his Facebook page one day not long ago and saw posts from a friend he once served with in the Army.
The friend was enthusiastically siding with President Donald Trump in his battle against NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality and inequality, and he criticized Black Lives Matter as a racist group.
Tolbert, a black man who served 23 years in the Army, was stunned, and so he called his white friend to ask about the posts. “You can’t really mean what you just posted, bro,” he remembers saying. “I’ve been knowing you over 30 years. You didn’t think that would offend me?”
The episode left Tolbert grappling with a difficult question: What does it mean anymore to be an American patriot?
“Everybody’s mad at each other because everybody’s got their opinion on this,” he bemoans to a group of mostly African-American veterans at the VFW in Robeson County, recounting the recent exchange. “I said, ‘Look, brother … Don’t let the media and politicians divide us, because we all believe in the same thing – we believe in justice; we believe in freedom of speech – because that’s what we fought for.'”
“I hate to hear them say we’re disgracing our flag,” agrees Walter Smith, who retired after 22 years in the military and sent two of his three sons to fight, too. “We’re not stomping on it. We’re not stepping on it. We’re not burning it up. … We’re kneeling to it because we’re asking for justice.”
Even a Trump supporter, Steve O’Connor, a white truck driver and veteran of the Army National Guard, isn’t sure why Trump opted to pick this particular fight in this particular way. He voted for Trump because he can barely afford to pay for insurance to cover his teenage daughter, but he wasn’t expecting his president to say that someone who kneels is a “son of a bitch.”
Tolbert doesn’t consider himself a Republican or a Democrat. His favorite president was Ronald Reagan – “my man Ronnie.” He believes that the widening divisions in society were designed to help politicians, and he worries they’re tearing the country so far apart it can’t be put back together.
As evidence, he points to a rally Trump held nearby in Fayetteville during last year’s campaign. A 78-year-old Trump supporter punched a young black man in the face. Trump had been encouraging his crowds to rough up protesters, and offered to pay legal bills if they got in trouble.
“You’re telling me that’s not dividing us?” Tolbert says. “This guy is saying things that no other president in the history of this country has said or done. That can’t be good for us.”
This year, after watching white supremacists rally in Virginia and seeing other clashes between emboldened white nationalists and those who arrive to oppose them, he’s filled with dread that the country is careening toward civil war.
“All it’s going to take is one time for something to go off in one city, a couple bullets flying on either side,” he says, “and it’s going to spill out into every city in the United States.”
“IT’S ALMOST LIKE WATCHING WRESTLING, BUT WITH POLITICS”
They told Andrew Pierce in barber school to try to divert conversations away from politics because it tends to upset people. But that seems almost impossible to do these days, when all anybody wants to talk about is what’s happening in Washington.
“Trump’s entertaining,” Pierce says, working his razor around a customer’s beard at The Chop Shop. “It’s almost like watching wrestling, but with politics.”
It seems to him that about half the people he meets think President Donald Trump is doing great, and half think he’s tearing the country apart. He watches the dynamic play out day after day in his barber chairs.
On this day in one chair sits Vonta Leach, an African-American former NFL player and an outspoken critic of Trump, who he believes drums up racial resentment by doing things like picking fights with black football players.
“Donald Trump has made a lot of racists come out,” Leach says. He doesn’t mind political debates, and he doesn’t think all Trump supporters are racist. “But I can’t deal with it if you can’t see the world through someone else’s eyes – if you can’t see it through a black person’s eyes.”
Next to him sits Jamie Locklear, a Native American electrician who confesses he voted for Trump and says: “Our country does seem to be dividing. … Donald’s just different. He’s upset a lot of people.”
Overall, Locklear thinks Trump is doing a decent job in the face of overwhelming opposition. He doesn’t watch the news much, because he likes to stay positive, but others around him see an administration that seems to revel in riling people up.
“I feel like people are showing their true colors,” says Pierce, who also is Native American. “They probably already felt like that. Now they can show it.”
He hopes Trump considers the lasting impact his language could have on the country. And he hopes he’ll consider visiting his barbershop.
“We could hook Donald Trump’s hair up – give him a free haircut,” Pierce says. “I’d say: go natural.”