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Paul Ryan Had A Black Girlfriend — Does It Matter?


Now, a non-story that's kicked off a very real conversation about race in America. In 2005, Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate, told a Milwaukee magazine that he has a black sister-in-law. He also said that in his bachelor past he had a black girlfriend. A CNN blogger gave the interview new life a few days ago. But what, if anything, does this glimpse into Ryan's past tell us about how inclusive his politics would be as vice president?

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates went in search of some answers.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: With the rise of interracial relationships in the past 20 years, everything from marriage to trans-racial adoption, the news that Paul Ryan says he had a black girlfriend really is non-story. The question a lot of people, especially people of color, have is does having had a relationship with someone of another race or ethnicity, make you more sensitive to those cultures.

LINDA YOUNG: Any of us can have bias towards or against someone based on race or ethnicity. And we may not even know it, so no matter how many friends we have or girlfriends we have, or who we play golf with, it's still possible.

BATES: That's psychologist and relationship expert Linda Young of the Woodlands, Texas. The larger issue for Young is how Ryan's policies might affect people of color. The dating thing, not so important.

YOUNG: I think it's kind of a non-sequitor. I think it takes us away from the issues at hand.

BATES: The issue at hand for a lot of African-Americans who have weighed in on this, is the back story. But let's go someplace where people more articulate than me can explain it to you.

BRAD JOHNSON: Hey, Karen. Welcome to Post and Beam.

BATES: Proprietor Brad Johnson swings open the door to his restaurant in L.A.'s predominantly black Crenshaw neighborhood. Patrons come here for the well-stocked bar and the wood-fired pizza, but they stay for hours to talk. Out on the patio where soul music mixes with the rush of nearby traffic, Johnson says he has a personal interest in the Ryan story.

JOHNSON: I happen to be bi-racial. My mom is Italian, my dad passed away a few years, was African-American. So I see the world through that lens.

BATES: Johnson says the mere fact that Ryan dated a black woman, or has a black sister-in-law, probably won't increase his appeal to black voters like him. What would make a difference to Johnson is some indication from the Romney-Ryan ticket that diversity is a priority.

JOHNSON: I do think that it is fair to look at who one has in their social circle and/or business circle and what that says about them as an individual. Are they inclusive?

BATES: Good question. Edgy comedians long have poked fun at liberal white folks who offer the lone black friend as testimony to their open-mindedness. Lenny Bruce did it in the '50s and Chris Rock is doing it today.


CHRIS ROCK: All my black friends have a bunch of white friends. And all my white friends have one black friend.

DORIAN MISSICK: Chris Rock's comedy is funny because it's so true.

BATES: Back out on Post and Beam's patio Dorian and Simone Missick are enjoying happy hour. Ask the couple if they have white friends and Simone Missick responds immediately.


BATES: Dorian Missick says as an African-American, white society expects him to function outside of his own community and have some knowledge of cultures other than his own. But he doesn't believe the reverse applies.

MISSICK: For a person who is white in America, to grow up in America and just live your life, you're not forced to have to walk outside of your comfort zone, which tends to be a white comfort zone.

BATES: White people who live multi-cultural lives Missick says, do so by choice. So for him, how comfortable Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are with people of color is the real story. And that will need to be reflected beyond the diversity that's on display at the convention in Tampa this week. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.