Where Are Politics’ Interracial Couples?

More Americans are open to mixed marriages, but few government officials marry outside their race.

Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray (Paul Zimmerman/WireImage/Getty Images)
Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray (Paul Zimmerman/WireImage/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Though the latest census data confirms that the number of interracial couples in America has grown significantly in recent years, there is still one place in American society where their numbers remain largely invisible: the campaign trail. Despite our country electing a president who is of mixed race, mixed-race couples remain a rarity in American politics.

The furor that erupted over coverage of Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s admission that he once dated a black woman raises an interesting question, with few easy answers. If society is becoming increasingly multiracial, then why don’t those leading society, or running for office to do so, reflect that? Why aren’t there more interracial couples in American politics and government?

According to political consultant Michael Goldman, who has advised the late Ted Kennedy and current Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the lack of multiracial families in politics is not that surprising. The reason, he explained, is that having a spouse of a different race still represents a political liability. “To be as ordinary as possible is the goal for a candidate,” Goldman said, adding that most voters feel comfortable voting for someone they can relate to. Since most people still marry people of the same race, for many voters a candidate with a spouse of a different race is simply less relatable. He drew comparisons to the struggle faced by candidates who practice a different religion than the majority of their constituents.

New York public advocate Bill de Blasio has not allowed such concerns to deter him from a career in politics. He is mounting a campaign to become New York City’s mayor. Should the Democrat win, he and his family would make history. De Blasio is white. His wife Chirlane is black. De Blasio admitted, however, in an interview with The Root, that the unique challenges multiracial families, including his own, have faced, can be a deterrent to entering politics. “If you’re an interracial family you’re still dealing with a certain amount of challenge from society around you just in having that family and in trying to make that family work.” He explained that the glare of the public eye that politics brings could make coping with those challenges even tougher.

Echoing Goldman’s sentiments, he said, “Society as a whole is not totally acclimated to interracial families yet.” He added, “We can’t think of another black-white couple active in politics.”

They are out there, but to de Blasio’s larger point they are few and far between. The highest profile mixed-race couples include former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who is white, and his wife Janet Langhart, a former Ebony Fashion Fair model and news anchor, who is black. They wrote of the challenges they faced early in their relationship in a memoir titled Love in Black and White. The only black justice currently on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, is married to Tea Party activist Virginia Thomas, who is white.

It is worth noting, however, that neither of these couples faced the scrutiny of a campaign. Both men are best known for appointed positions, which means they did not have to defend their unions before voters. In Cohen’s case, though, he and his wife married while he was still a Republican member of the U.S. Senate, in the last year of his final term. He has previously acknowledged that the relationship gave some of his supporters pause, meaning their union could have become campaign fodder had he run for re-election.