Bill de Blasio, the presumptive Democratic nominee in the New York mayoral race, was criticized by outgoing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for running a “racist” campaign.
In a wide-ranging interview with New York Magazine published just before the primary vote, the billionaire businessman and three-time mayor specified that he didn’t think de Blasio (who is white) is racist himself, but that by heavily promoting his black wife, Chirlane McCray, and mixed-race kids in his campaign advertisements and commercials, de Blasio was “making an appeal using his family to gain support.”
Bloomberg added: “I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.”
Bloomberg likely was annoyed that his unofficial hand-picked successor, City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, failed to gain the nomination and possibly also perturbed by the sudden fame of de Blasio’s teenage son Dante (he of the huge afro).
Although Bloomberg’s words were awkward and ill-chosen, I kind of understood what he was getting at with respect to de Blasio.
In indigo-blue New York, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 6-to-1 margin, Democratic candidates usually find themselves in a crowded field and are forced to play “racial politics.” Part of that involves making appeals to the African-American voter base -- which represents about 18 percent of the population and overwhelmingly supports Democrats. Thus, a candidate such as de Blasio had to do something to stand out from the pack.
De Blasio (wisely, in my opinion) highlighted his interracial family to attract support both from liberal, progressive whites and from blacks who might eagerly endorse what they perceive to be a “nonracist” white man.
And this ploy worked beautifully -- de Blasio not only grabbed 40 percent of the total primary vote, but even snared more black voters than the lone African-American candidate in the contest, Bill Thompson. Quite an extraordinary feat for a former long-shot candidate (de Blasio) who ranked pretty low in popularity and name-recognition polls just a few months ago.
Now, de Blasio has a very strong possibility of becoming the next mayor of New York.
However, I can’t help but wonder how this tale would have unfolded if the races were reversed -- that is, what if de Blasio were black and his bride were white?
The number of interracial relationships and marriages has skyrocketed in the U.S. over the past three decades, while the population of mixed-race children has similarly grown. This is an inevitability in a free, democratic, polyglot society. Indeed, we even have a president whose father was black and mother was white.
Among all the different possible permutations of interracial couples, however, it is the black male/white female paradigm that incites the most hostility -- even in the “progressive, liberal” New York of the early 21st century.
The toxic reaction to the black male/white female pairing is deeply rooted in this country’s long and bloody racial history -- indeed, one of the founding principles of the Ku Klux Klan related to the premise that in the wake of the devastating loss in the Civil War, Southern white women were in grave danger of rape by “marauding” and “violent” black men. Untold thousands of black men were lynched in the South and elsewhere in the late 19th century-early 20th century merely on rumors or allegations (often unproven or completely false) that they had sexually assaulted a white woman.
This attitude still persists in some quarters.
I once had a black male work colleague who dated and later married a white woman. He informed me that their appearance in public elicited hostile stares, verbal abuse and even threats of violence not only from whites (mostly men) but also from blacks (mostly women). He was venomously called a “sell-out” or “Oreo” by some blacks, and far worse epithets by some whites.
As such, for a black male political candidate, having a white wife might present some tremendous obstacles. I can only think of a handful of prominent African-American political/government figures who are married to white women, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (who is widely despised by blacks anyway). There may be some others, but they’re likely involved in local politics or toiling in obscurity.
Thus, I think the taboo against a black male politician having a white wife would largely negate the chances of gaining high office, even now in the year 2012. Indeed, if Barack Obama had a white wife, how far would his political career have reached? Would he have ever attained the White House? Would a white wife have alienated the base of black supporters who otherwise overwhelmingly supported him (and his black wife Michelle) in both 2008 and 2012?
I recall in the 1980s that Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, was gravely concerned that his light-skinned black wife Effi might be perceived as “white,” so he went out of his way to declare her African origins.
But this issue goes far beyond politics, especially in the realm of professional sports. I remember 20 years ago, when the O.J. Simpson murder case dominated the airwaves for months on end, many whites were angered not just because the former NFL great (allegedly) murdered his wife, but that he savagely killed his blonde, white wife. Similarly, in more recent times, golfing superstar Tiger Woods was widely chastised not only for marrying a blonde Norwegian woman, but also for apparently fooling around exclusively with white women.
The other side of the American race-sex issue -- white men with black women -- also has a grim history, stretching back to the days of slavery when the white master on the plantation would routinely sexually abuse and rape his helpless black female slaves (thereby creating a kind of “color caste system” among African-Americans that remains to the present day).
Nonetheless, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, the white male-black female couple does not appear to trigger as much of a backlash (from either whites or blacks) as the reverse example.
Perhaps the most famous white male celebrity with a very public fondness for black women is the film actor Robert De Niro, who has almost exclusively dated and married African-American women much of his adult life. But this predilection certainly has not hurt his career, nor has he suffered much negative reaction from the public at all. In stark contrast, Sammy Davis Jr. was widely assailed and even threatened for dating and marrying white women in the 1950s and 1960s -- yes, that was more 50 years ago in a very different period of history, but one must wonder how the careers of current black film stars such as Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman would play out were their wives and girlfriends not black.
As for de Blasio, he has nothing to lose. By proudly showcasing his interracial family, there are few people in New York that he could alienate (aside from people such as Bloomberg who perceived it as part of a conspiracy to siphon votes). But, if de Blasio were black, one might be certain that a white wife could have derailed any political aspirations.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.