NEW YORK — In 1959, only four percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage. Today, 87 percent do, according to a Gallup poll. President Barack Obama was born to such a marriage, and census figures show that the fastest growing demographic under 18 is children of mixed race.
When New York City’s new mayor-elect, Bill de Blasio, a white man married to an African American woman, takes office January 1 with his wife and their two children at his side, his family will mirror this new American landscape.
It hardly could be more different from 1958, when people who married across racial lines were subject to arrest in 22 U.S. states. Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving wed that year in Washington, D.C. Mildred was African American and Richard was white. Six weeks after, when they returned to their home state of Virginia, police broke down the door of their house in the middle of the night.
“I saw this light, and I woke up, and it was a policeman standing beside the bed. He told us to get up, that we [were] under arrest,” Mildred later recalled. They were sentenced to 25 years of banishment from Virginia. The Lovings sued, and in 1967 the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in the 16 states where they were still on the books. Since then, interracial marriage has steadily increased, to 15 percent of all new marriages and eight percent of existing marriages.
“Society has become more accepting of it - although we still get looks sometimes,” says New Yorker Gerri Buchanan. She is African American and has been married to Tom Rogers, who is white, for five years. They met online, and found they shared similar values, commitment to family foremost among them. Both have children from previous interracial marriages: Tom’s school-age daughters and Gerri’s adult son.
In New York, multiracial families like theirs and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's are nothing out of the ordinary. Still, New York City has not previously had a racially mixed first family, and political observers say that de Blasio’s was a factor in his surge to an overwhelming win last November.
Ken Tanabe, the founder of Loving Day, a multi-city celebration of interracial families held each year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, said de Blasio's election reflects New York’s increasing diversity - within families as well as in neighborhoods.
“It’s always been a diverse place, but there are more and more couples that are interracial, and more and more people that identify as multi-ethnic, and with the election of Bill de Blasio, I think we’re seeing more and more acceptance and support for those families and couples and individuals,” he said. "If you look at who voted for him across all these different demographic groups, he did well across the board,” Tanabe added. “That’s remarkable,” he said, because “interracial marriage in politics is extremely rare. And he’s using that almost as an asset.”
Writer Aja Monet says that the de Blasio marriage also has special resonance for African American women, who are often sexualized - or ignored by - popular culture and politics.
“If you don't look a certain way, if you’re not Eurocentric in your figure, or in your identity - I mean look how many times people have torn down Michelle Obama based on her body, on how she looks, and this is from white men a lot of the time,” she said. “And then you have this other man, who is ‘Let me kiss my beautiful black wife in front of you, and I love her, and it’s not about that.’”
“I think there’s comfort in being represented by people who really reflect the type of lives we live every day,” Monet said.
Tom Rogers and Gerri Buchanan also voted for de Blasio. They supported him for his policies, not his personal life, they say. Still, his racially diverse family was appealing to them. “As it is depressing for me to see people not mingle, it makes me happy to see people like the de Blasios, who are kind of like us,” said Rogers.