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Washington 'power couple' takes on race

William and Janet Cohen want to use their experience as a mixed-race couple to start an open discussion on race in America.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2008

Let’s talk: Janet and William Cohen each grew up as outsiders because of race and religion. Today, they’re a very successful professional couple. But at a time when the presidential contest has raised questions about a “post-racial” America, there still are clear differences in how blacks and whites see race relations in the United States today.

Rob Chaddock

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Married in the US Capitol, William S. Cohen and Janet Langhart Cohen have all the trappings of a Washington Insider Power Couple.

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A former Republican senator from Maine, he served as secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and is chairman and CEO of the Cohen Group. A former model and television journalist, she is CEO of Langhart Communications.

But he is white and she is black, and what led them to convene a two-day conference on race and reconciliation in America, opening Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, is a common experience as outsiders.

"I wanted to have this conversation [on racial reconciliation] practically my whole life," says Janet Cohen, citing an incident when she and her mother were denied service at a restaurant in her hometown of Indianapolis. She recalls her mother telling her, "Janet, you're a little colored girl and people are not going to like you because you're colored." The slights and barriers due to race became a constant in her life – not insurmountable, but ever present, she says.

Raised in Bangor, Maine, by a Jewish father and an Irish Protestant mother, William Cohen learned early on that his father's name exposed him to anti-Semitic epithets. But to others, he wasn't Jewish enough. When a local rabbi denied the boy a bar mitzvah because his mother would not convert to Judaism, Cohen tore the mezuza off a chain around his neck and flung it into the Penobscot River.

"I would soon learn that it was easier to break a chain from my neck than it would be to break away from the bigotry of others," he later wrote in "Love in Black and White: A memoir of race, religion and romance," coauthored with Janet.

The Cohens convened this conference to help promote an honest, civil discussion on racial reconciliation at a time that many Americans see the nation moving beyond race, especially with the prospect of a black candidate winning the Democratic presidential nomination and even the White House.

"We're heading towards a post-racial moment. There's no question that there's progress on a number of fronts, one of which is public opinion," says pollster John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International and one of about 100 participants at the conference.