As New York’s final primary votes are counted and analysts examine the campaign that made Bill de Blasio the likely next mayor, it’s clear that race matters — just not in the way some might have expected. Earlier in the week, Mayor Bloomberg had characterized De Blasio as “racist” for “making an appeal using his family,” and his widely condemned comment pointed to an insidious prejudice: the assumption that interracial families, simply by existing in public, are somehow rubbing themselves in everyone’s faces.
A white man can hug his black wife without “using” her or “making an appeal,” of course. And yet the De Blasios also demonstrate how appealing that simple act can be. An increasingly multicultural America is hungry for public figures who reflect their ideals. The De Blasios understand that — which helps explain how De Blasio’s populist campaign “grabbed at least one-third of every major ethnic group’s vote.”
His 16-year-old son Dante’s TV ad demonstrated that “the aggressive policing of the Bloomberg era was not an abstraction … within his biracial household.” When Dante de Blasio’s ad first appeared online, the Root’s Keli Goff dubbed it the “Cheerios ad” of politics, referring to the widely discussed cereal commercial featuring an interracial family. That ad drew sharp racist backlash — and backlash-to-the-backlash applause. The De Blasios welcomed the comparison; a post on Bill’s campaign website entitled “Cheerios” features the family posed around the cereal’s signature yellow box. “The ad struck a chord with me,” De Blasio’s wife Chirlane McCray wrote. “19 years of marriage and two children later, this is the first TV commercial I have ever seen with a family that looks a little bit like ours.”
At a recent event for Young Progressives for De Blasio (a group advertised with an image of white and black fists bumping) De Blasio’s college-aged daughter Chiara described him as not “some boring white guy”:
I’m so happy that I get to work with my dad and the rest of my family on this campaign. It’d be one thing if I just thought he was just like some boring white guy who didn’t know what he was talking about. But you know, he truly — he cares about everybody in this city, every different type of person. You know, rich, poor, black, white, blue, whatever.
De Blasio is, of course, a “boring white guy” insofar as he is a Caucasian male who wears a tie to work and spends a lot of time talking about taxes. But Chiara uses “some boring white guy” as a signifier for Bloomberg’s old guard — men who register surprise at the sight of an interracial couple, who see young black men as public-safety threats who ought to be frisked. Those men are “boring” because their outlook is old-fashioned. To people like Chiara, they represent the past.
As the likely major-party candidate to run America’s most major city, Bill de Blasio represents a new kind of boring — the value system, loosely, of the New Brooklyn culture De Blasio is said to embody. Members are aware of privilege, “identity,” and representation. Diversity is an accepted value. And so, just as Chirlane McCray found herself excited to see a family like hers thrust into the mainstream by a cereal commercial, the De Blasios now symbolize a change in what is considered normal, and who is allowed to be boring. “We are a very conventional, unconventional couple,” Chirlane McCray told Essence in an interview about how a black lesbian ended up married to a white man. “I was wearing West African–inspired clothing and a nose ring, and Bill says he had the love-at-first-sight experience.”
And just as the thrill of a black president was soon overshadowed by practical matters, Chirlane describes race as a relationship issue immediately overshadowed by everyday concerns. “This may surprise you, but Bill’s age concerned me more than the color of his skin (he’s six years younger!),” she wrote in her “Cheerios” post. Though exciting in the buildup, when change comes, it, too, must become boring, an accepted feature of everyday life, if it is to last.
“Progress,” De Blasio tweeted next to a picture of himself holding his wife’s hand on voting day. There was no reason to think the tweet was about race — De Blasio calls his politics “unapologetically progressive” — but many of De Blasio’s followers read it that way, anyway. “Love is color blind,” one fan wrote. “If this is what a racist campaign looks like, then I could get used to racist campaigning,” said another.
Bill De Blasio embraces his son, Dante, daughter, Chiara, and wife, Chirlane, after addressing supporters after polls closed in New York City’s primary election on Wednesday, September 11, 2013.
The De Blasios doing their signature “smackdown” dance at the West Indian Day Parade on Monday, September 2, 2013.
Bill de Blasio kisses his wife Chirlane McCray after casting his primary vote on Tuesday, September 10, 2013, at the Park Slope Public Library in Brooklyn.
Bill, Chiara, and Dante de Blasio arrive at the first democratic mayoral candidate debate on August 13, 2013.
De Blasios at the Reverend Al Sharpton and National Action Network Feeding of the Hungry on Christmas Day & Toy Giveaway on December 25, 2011, in Harlem, New York City.
Bill de Blasio is sworn in as New York City public advocate by Congressman Jerrold Nadler on the steps of City Hall on January 1, 2010 in New York.
Bill and Chiara de Blasio during a campaign rally in Brooklyn on Saturday, September 7, 2013.