Breaking the last racial taboo
There’s nothing more traditional in American politics than the wholesome family portrait: a beaming candidate, beaming spouse, reluctantly beaming teenagers.
But when Bill de Blasio, a candidate for public office in New York City this fall, put his family in his campaign mailings and TV ads, there was nothing routine about it. De Blasio’s wife of 15 years, Chirlane McCray, is black, his children are of mixed race and, even in one of America’s most liberal cities, no one could remember anything like it.
De Blasio, 48, won the crucial Democratic primary in a runoff Sept. 29 and is in line to be the city’s next public advocate, a sort of high-profile ombudsman’s job that’s second in the line of succession to the mayor. The city councilman from liberal Park Slope, Brooklyn, had other things going for him — institutional support, newspaper endorsements — but in the view of his campaign, and of many of the city’s political observers, his interracial relationship was an almost unmitigated positive in a hotly contested election.
With Barack Obama having rewritten the history of race relations in this country, de Blasio may be demolishing one of its last taboos, “For so long in American history, interracial couples went out of their way to keep their relationships out of the public eye that it’s remarkable to see them used in a campaign like this,” said Peggy Pascoe, a historian of interracial marriage at the University of Oregon, who referred to the campaign as “a post-Obama phenomenon.”
That’s a perception McCray said she shared. Obama, she said, “opened a door” and “made it easier for us to go there.”
While de Blasio’s success in New York reflects the increased acceptance of mixed marriages, recent history suggests that the new tolerance may still be dependent on geography and race. A sharp counterpoint was the 2006 Tennessee Senate race which then-Rep. Harold Ford, an African-American, lost narrowly to Republican Bob Corker after the final days of the campaign were consumed by a Republican National Committee ad linking Ford to a scantily clad young blond woman. Ford’s allies charged it was a thinly veiled attempt to tap into old Southern fears about black men and white women.
And it seems to be a current that still remains just below the surface in Tennessee politics: Ford’s subsequent marriage to a white woman was widely viewed as a major barrier to another run.
While the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage in 1967, attitudes were relatively slow to change in much of the country. When Dean Rusk, who was secretary of state at the time, learned that his daughter planned to marry a black man that same year, he offered his resignation, which President Lyndon B. Johnson declined. Former Massachusetts Sen. Ed Brooke, an African-American, was married to an Italian woman he’d met as a soldier in World War II, something he later said was sometimes used against him even in that liberal state. And Obama himself faced challenges to his racial authenticity as the child of a mixed marriage.
Gallup surveys indicate that only 48 percent of Americans approved of marriage between blacks and whites as recently as 1994, a number that had risen to 77 percent by 2007.
Other barriers fell long ago: Phil Gramm, for example, a prominent conservative elected to both the House and Senate from Texas, is married to woman of Korean heritage who was born in Hawaii. This year, in deeply conservative South Carolina, state Sen. Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent, has put her husband, who is white, and their children front and center in her campaign for governor.
“It’s a total nonissue,” said her spokesman, Tim Pearson.
The politics of black and white, though, have always been more sensitive. But de Blasio’s campaign, like Obama’s, reflects a New York political environment in which the politics of race are changing fast.
“It’s the right city — particularly if you’re the white man running for a citywide office — to show that you can be connected to and understand the issues of people of color in the city as a public advocate,” said Maya Wiley, the director of the Center for Social Inclusion in New York.
For de Blasio, his family seemed to serve two political purposes: establishing his credibility with African-American voters, and projecting the image for all voters of a candidate suited to the Obama era.
“It’s not post-racial, and it’s not nonracial — but it’s a different racial environment,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College in Manhattan. The image, he said “is simply more modern, it’s more American, and it’s sort of an apotheosis of New York.”
De Blasio said in an interview that he had little choice about projecting his identity. “This is literally who I am, and these are the most important people in my life, and my life revolves around them. My wife is my partner in everything,” he said.
McCray narrates de Blasio’s first ad, concluding with an arm around him, “Bill’s a great husband and father, and he’ll be a great public advocate. I should know — this big guy’s my husband.” His second television ad, narrated by their 12-year-old son, Dante, closed with an image of de Blasio and his family to underscore a message of inclusion: “I’ll stand up for all New Yorkers,” the candidate intones.
His wife’s prominence wasn’t all a matter of course — a poll done early on for the campaign specifically included a question on interracial marriage. But de Blasio said he always hoped his candidacy could have a larger impact.
“I thought if I could do this the right way and show a multiracial family in a very positive light that that was good for the public discourse and also for candidates,” de Blasio said. “Every time a candidate who’s different ventures out and succeeds, it opens up a lot more space.”
De Blasio and McCray met when a more traditional racial politics was at its height in New York. Then- Mayor David Dinkins’s fragile coalition-building had brought together black and Hispanic voters and enough liberal whites to win a narrow majority, but that coalition ultimately fractured when he ran for reelection against Rudy Giuliani in a contest dominated by violence between blacks and Jews.
The Dinkins movement “wasn’t sustainable, because we didn’t reach deeply enough and ended up with an incomplete coalition,” said de Blasio, who, like his wife, worked for Dinkins. “That was a foundational experience to me — that the only way you make real change in society is to create a full coalition and sustain it.”
His efforts to make his family a kind of symbolic coalition drew some resistance. A black nationalist city councilman, Charles Barron, called his mailing “disgraceful” and “an insult to the black community.”
Rival campaigns, meanwhile, were unsure of what to make of it. A senior aide to one rival said they tested de Blasio’s mailings in a focus group and left hoping that voters would find the appeal “crass.” On the campaign trail, though, the reception was overwhelmingly positive, McCray said in an interview. “People loved the literature. Some people have it hanging in their living rooms,” she said.
De Blasio’s primary victory hardly marked the end of racial politics in New York, long split by tribes and their alliances, if shifting ones. The same day, a Dinkins-style minority coalition carried a Chinese-American, John Liu, to victory in a campaign marked by appeals to racial and ethnic solidarity —such as those from one black Brooklyn council woman, who said: “We stand with this minority because we, as members of a minority, recognize that when we stand together, we represent a majority.”
De Blasio, who is expected to win handily against a token opponent in next month’s general election, declined to offer a simple lesson from his win.
“We’re not in post-racial politics, but we’re in a politics of racial possibility,” de Blasio said. “Our obligation is to keep pushing it, ... to keep trying all the permutations of it.”