Another milestone is passing in America’s racial journey: The next mayor of New York City is a white man with a black wife.
Even in a nation with a biracial president, where interracial marriage is more accepted and common than ever, Bill de Blasio’s marriage to Chirlane McCray is remarkable: He is apparently the first white politician in U.S. history elected to a major office with a black spouse by his side.
This simple fact is striking a deep chord in many people as de Blasio prepares to take office on Jan. 1, with McCray playing a major role in his administration.
“It reflects the American values of embracing different races, ethnicities, religions. I think it’s just a great symbol,” said William Cohen, the former Maine senator and Secretary of Defense, who is married to a black woman.
Cohen was already a senator when he started dating Janet Langhart, a black television journalist. He proposed several times, but she feared that her race would hurt Cohen’s political future. They married in 1996, a few weeks after Cohen announced he would not seek a fourth term.
“There has been that fear (of interracial marriage) on the part of politicians. I didn’t have it,” Cohen said. He noted that a few white politicians have married Latino or Asian women, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife is from Mexico, or Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is married to the Taiwan-born former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
There have been black men in politics who have been married to white women, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke. And high-profile women such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose parents are from India, and Mia Love, the black mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, are married to white men.
Yet unions of white men and black women have retained a forbidden aura, Cohen said.
“It’s black and white, it’s slavery and Jim Crow and the fact you can’t talk about it,” he said. “Black and white has been more of a taboo in the eyes of enough people to be a deterrent.”
The taboo is declining, polls show.
In July, a Gallup poll found that 87 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage – the highest rate ever – compared with 4 percent in 1958. In 2010, more than 15 percent of all new marriages were interracial, according to the Pew Research Center.
Yet statistics also indicate why de Blasio and McCray are such a rarity.
The Gallup poll showed that 14 percent of white people did not approve of intermarriage, compared with 2 percent of black people. And white men are the least likely to marry outside of their race – more than 97 percent of white men are married to white women (82 percent of black men, 65 percent of Hispanics and 48 percent of Asians marry within their own group). The figures are based on 2005 census data analyzed by Michael Rosenfeld, a Stanford University sociologist who studies interracial marriage.
Much has been made of the difficulties black women have in selecting husbands from a pool of eligible black men shrunk by unemployment and incarceration. Among black women age 35 and over, more than 25 percent have never been married, compared with about 7 percent of white women, census figures show. Black men also are twice as likely as black women to marry outside of their race, according to Rosenfeld.
American history and culture, meanwhile, are littered with troubled tales of interracial couples. There have been centuries of debate over President Thomas Jefferson fathering children with his slave Sally Hemings; Sen. Strom Thurmond fought for segregation after having a child with a black housekeeper. In his 1991 film, Spike Lee dubbed interracial sex “Jungle Fever.”
All of which helps explain why many saw the matrimonial script being flipped by McCray and de Blasio.
“We’re seeing black women loved in a way we have not seen before,” said Aja Monet, a poet and New Yorker.
She sees this trend in real life and fiction, from McCray to first lady Michelle Obama to the Olivia Pope character in “Scandal,” the hit TV show about a powerful black political operative in a relationship with a white president.
Monet has black, Cuban, Jamaican and Puerto Rican heritage. Her boyfriend is Korean-American. She noted that McCray and her brown children not only helped de Blasio connect with black voters – “their love functioned like a political technology” – but McCray also was a key player in de Blasio’s campaign and will be an important part of his Democratic administration.
“It’s fair to say the most important voice in my life is Chirlane McCray,” de Blasio said after his victory.
As de Blasio and McCray celebrated on election night with their two children, Tiya Miles saw them on television and stopped in her tracks. “I was very moved,” she said.
Miles, a black University of Michigan professor, recently wrote a column about being stung by the sight of so many successful black men choosing white wives. It feels like “a personal rejection of the group in which I am a part, of African American women as a whole, who have always been devalued in this society,” Miles wrote.
“I think black women sit there with these feelings and they fester, and they take little bits of us over time,” Miles said in an interview. “We can deal, we can manage, we keep on moving because that’s our job in life, but it still affects us.”
So for her, de Blasio and McCray’s victory feels like confirmation – especially since McCray does not resemble the type of black woman that mainstream America usually deems beautiful, like Halle Berry or Beyonce.
“A woman who has darker skin and natural hair, and a white man,” Miles said. “To see a black woman who is in a long-term relationship with children and her partner, who does not fit that stiff, narrow, idealized image of what a black woman should look like, I think is powerful.”
It’s more a simple sign of progress for Love, the mayor from Utah and a rising Republican star.
“I tend not to look at race in any issue,” she said. However, “the fact that people are able to marry someone outside of their race without feeling as if they are going to have any issues or repercussions is a great thing.”
Interracial marriage is not entirely accepted. A recent Cheerios ad featuring an interracial family inspired so many racist remarks that YouTube stopped allowing comments on it. And there remains some black resistance to marrying white people – it’s widely accepted that if President Barack Obama had married a white woman, or even a light-skinned black woman, black voters would have caused him problems.
De Blasio was elected in New York, perhaps the most diverse city in America. But he is connecting with people across the country, especially the children of interracial marriages.
“Thank you, New York City, for this gift,” wrote Liz Dwyer, whose father is white and mother is black, on her losangelista.com blog.
“It’s just the resonance of it. How much it means for families to see a family like them in a visible place,” said Ken Tanabe, a New Yorker with a Japanese father and Belgian mother. He is the founder of the Loving Day organization – http://www.lovingday.org – which organizes annual events celebrating the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down laws against interracial marriage.
“Within our community, when someone does well, it feels like an affirmation,” he said. “Not on the scale of a Barack Obama, but sort of a local version of that.”
Said Cohen, the former defense secretary: “It says a lot about this country. Where we’ve come from, how far.”
“The mayor,” he said, “has shattered an image.”