Presumptive vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan’s recently unearthed comment from 2005 that he had a black girlfriend in college has put a new twist in the race for the White House, inviting comparisons with recent revelations about how President Obama has portrayed the importance of his own interracial dating years ago.
To be sure, to many Americans, Congressman Ryan’s college dating life is a nonstory, just as it was in Mr. Obama's case. But given that Ryan's policies are portrayed by some as being detrimental to the African-American community, the report could color impressions of his character and the proposals he espouses.
So far, Ryan hasn’t made any further comments about the mystery college girlfriend, though his campaign has confirmed the report. Some college buddies reached by reporters couldn’t remember a black girlfriend. But discussion has been percolating on the Internet about what the news means – if anything.
ChicagoNow columnist John Chatz, who is white and is married to a black woman, says the nugget may earn Ryan new respect and another look from minority voters. But it also could become a negative “in some of Chicago’s most famous, all-white, intolerant neighborhoods.”
“Political pundits may wonder how Ryan will use this relationship to advance himself or to make himself more credible,” writes Mr. Chatz. “Ryan is now placing himself way beyond the ‘I have black friends’ category and entering a world where few would dare to tread.”
It was Keli Goss, a political reporter with the black-centric The Root website, whose essay, “Does Paul Ryan’s black ex-girlfriend matter?” set off the debate after CNN’s Peter Hamby tweeted the news.
In essence, Ms. Goff writes that having personal interracial relationships doesn’t automatically disqualify politicians like Ryan from being bigots. The NAACP, for example, says Ryan's fiscal policies could hurt poor blacks if he and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney are elected. Ryan has countered by saying that it’s paternal government policies toward minorities that suppress their success.
“I am not calling Ryan a racist,” writes Ms. Goff. “I am saying, however, that 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.”
On a different level, the discussion around Ryan echoes the discussion that surrounded Obama after the new David Maraniss biography, “Obama: The Story,” was published earlier this year. Obama himself mentioned in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” that he dated white women in college. But Mr. Maraniss' book lays more stress on the role white girlfriends played in Obama's formative years.
According to Maraniss, Obama and one of his white girlfriends often talked about race, and Obama reportedly said that he felt like an “imposter” because, as the woman said, there was “hardly a black bone in his body.”
The girlfriend at one point told the future president that he “needed to go black,” according to Maraniss, but Obama doubted that he’d ever find a black woman “he would feel truly comfortable with.”
In a country still refining its views on race, the decision by those who vie to lead the nation personally to cross racial barriers provides a mirror in which voters can see a different reflection.
"Race does matter and deserves a dialogue,” writes columnist Bruce Baker on the Examiner website.