A NY Politician Speaks Subtly About Interracial Marriage

By Michelle Chen Oct 22, 2009

Having won the Democratic primary, New York City Councilmember Bill de Blasio’s quest to become the city’s next public advocate is now all but certain to lead to victory. But his campaign–which has run "eye-catching" ads featuring his wife and kids–is still surprising a few observers. Of course, when you’re a white politician in a biracial marriage in the age of Obama, it’d be more surprising if no one noticed. De Blasio spoke with NPR’s Michel Martin about mixing family life and political campaigning, and what happens when the image of interracial love takes politicians and voters out of their comfort zone:

Mr. DE BLASIO: Everyone wonders how the people are going to see these things. Having gone through the, you know, the early time of my relationship with my wife and seeing some people bristle at it, even in our own family, by definition, there was going to be some bias out there. And people were going to react, you know, some people were going to react negatively. I felt from the beginning a vast majority of people would embrace it and I think that’s what we saw. In fact, we got a lot of very emotional, positive response. Particularly women of color, I think, came up and said that it was meaningful to them that we portrayed this whole family and made it so central, and showed that this was something to celebrate and hold up as an example. And I will say, there were certainly some critical voices. One of my colleagues in the city council was negative towards the ads and, you know, I think unfairly so. MARTIN: Saying what? Mr. DE BLASIO: He treated it in his world view as an appeal to black voters in particular and argued that it wasn’t substantive enough. And my counter is simple. We ran a very substantive campaign. We talked about issues of concern to all voters. I’ve done a lot of work, in particular, in the black community and I’m gratified to say that the response was strong and positive in almost all communities.

Why would a campaign ad spotlighting a mixed-race family–in one of the most diverse cities in the world–raise so many eyebrows across the country? Ben Smith at Politico says that on the one hand, many Americans still can’t get over the idea of Blacks and Whites getting together and having kids. And on the other hand, trying too hard to play up diversity can strike some as tokenistic or exploitative:

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…. [DeBlasio’s] 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, [DeBlasio’s wife Chirlane McCray] said in an interview. “People loved the literature. Some people have it hanging in their living rooms,” she said.

Whether you think de Blasio’s ads reflect opportunism or genuine open-mindedness or both, one thing comes through crystal clear: despite talk of a so-called post-racial society, getting past race in electoral politics still takes a lot more than a good campaign. The portrait of de Blasio’s family may speak to a subtly idealized vision of New York. But more importantly, it stretches beyond the image of the individual politician and pushes the viewer to examine the gap between symbols and reality.