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article imageOp-Ed: Paul Ryan had a black girlfriend — so what?

By JohnThomas Didymus     Aug 22, 2012 in Politics
CNN's Pete Hamby recently tweeted a statement made by Ryan during a 2005 interview in which he said his college sweetheart was African-American. Questions are being asked whether "Ryan [could] use this fact of a black ex" to his political advantage.
Hamby tweeted the statement attributed to Ryan two days after Romney announced Ryan as his running mate: "Paul Ryan to Milwaukee Magazine in 2005: 'I have a sister-in-law who's African American. My college sweetheart was black.'"
John Chatz, writing in Chicago Now, wonders "how a conservative Republican will respond to Ryan's dating history in the Alabama deep south or, more locally, in some of Chicago's most famous all-white, intolerant neighborhoods, when this fact is publicized." He asks further, "...will this fact make this perceived anti-Medicare, anti-abortion candidate more palatable to Democrats or fence-sitters because of his ability to see beyond his race?"
Keli Goff, writing in the African-American website, The Root, raised the question whether "the fact that Ryan has dated inter-racially [is] a noteworthy detail to consider in analyzing his politics and policies."
The Christian Post notes that some may think that Ryan's dating history demonstrates that his policies will be friendly to African Americas. But Goff questions the notion of exempting a person from being identified as racist simply because that person had a relationship with someone of a different race. While she insists she is not saying Ryan is racist, she argues that people should make informed decisions based on his policies rather than his personal relationships. She cites the well known cases of Strom Thurmond and Lou Dobbs to support her argument:
"For years Lou Dobbs was the face of the anti-illegal-immigration crusade. As a result of his seeming obsession with the issue, he became in the eyes of many the face of xenophobia and racism, not to mention public enemy No. 1 of Mexican immigrants. There's just one hitch to this narrative: Dobbs is married to a Mexican-American woman...
"Certainly, having a relationship with someone of a different race does not automatically make someone more racially sensitive and enlightened. Throughout his lifetime, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina financially and emotionally supported the daughter he fathered with an underage black servant. In addition to paying for her education, he was also known to play the part of proud parent by visiting her college campus and make inquiries to faculty about her educational progress.
"Yet at the same time he was doing this in private, he was publicly advancing policies that would have rendered his daughter's education virtually useless. If those policies had succeeded, she and her children, with whom he also maintained a relationship, would have remained second-class citizens."
Goff writes that research shows that people who hold stereotypes about a group tend to retain the stereotypes after encounter with someone of that group who defies the stereotype because they tend to assume that the person is an exception. Thus, it is possible for a person to have a friend belonging to a group while still maintaining stereotypes about the group.
Goff concludes:
"...if you want to know where a politician's heart lies when it comes to a particular community, it may be best to look at that person's policies -- such as his or her record on civil rights -- rather than personal relationships. "
However, some commenters have expressed the opinion that the fact that Ryan dated an African American my widen his appeal. John Chatz, writing in Chicago Now, comments:
"It seems to me that his willingness to step outside his own comfort zone could appeal to more people than he realizes.... Many of us may have viewed Paul Ryan as just another Dan Quayle or similar white guy candidate who possesses no larger world view than that of his white, conservative, Swiss-cheese eating brethren. At least now I feel that Paul Ryan offers something a little different, something that makes him worth taking a look at in a way that I wouldn't look at Mitt Romney... It's not easy walking that line. But, knowing that dating someone outside of your race takes extra effort and fortitude for some of the things you encounter along the way, I respect him for it. And, once you respect a political candidate, you've crossed an important threshold which I find difficult to cross in many instances."
Chatz concludes:
"Dating a person of a different race really shouldn't change the way a person is viewed or perceived - in a normal everyday setting - but for a Republican candidate for vice-president, it could make enough of a difference to change the outcome. We'll soon see."
The “some of my best friends are black!” defense against a racism charge is the most commonly used, and many persons of African descent have learned to be wary of whites who use this defense. While the defense may make an impression on fellow white conservatives, it is unlikely to make an impression on liberals and African Americans who are aware that some southern "massas" kept black mistresses in the good old conservative days.
Derek Hunter, writing in NY Daily News, launches into a confused criticism of Goff's argument, and in the process, demonstrates another trait common among white conservatives, many of whom harbor racial prejudice they are unwilling to confront — a qualified denial of the fact of the pervasiveness of racism in spite of what appears the integration of races in modern society. Hunter writes:
"Yes, racism, real racism, still exists. But this isn’t 1920 and the entire country is not the Jim Crow Democrat controlled south. A mutant here, a pocket of mutants there are racists, but it’s hardly the norm. And society as a whole, not just one political party, condemns it."
This is nothing as good for raising a red flag in the minds of perceptive persons of African descent than a white person presenting an argument that suggests (even with carefully worded qualifications) that racism is a thing of the "ancient past." "Denialism," in the context of discussion of race issues, is a trait that comes in different subtle varieties, and it is the most visible trait exhibited by white conservatives in a modern society in which rules of "politically correct speech" dictate etiquette in the public forum. Denial of the pervasiveness of racism in conservative political culture stems from the need to avoid the truth that the entirety of conservative ideology is steeped in a historic cultural heritage of race and ethnic exclusivism.
And that is the truth a white conservative may seek to deny with such facile defense as "I am not racist, my college sweetheart was African American."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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