09/06/2012 04:30 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

Interracial Dating in 2012 and What Paul Ryan's Ex Means


Last week, UK's Daily Mail reported that vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's ex-girlfriend of ten years is African-American. It's ironic that Ryan, who once claimed he'd experienced racism first-hand because of it, is now running on a ticket that uses race to divide and conquer as adeptly as George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton.

In fact, the Republican party has done more to create racial divisiness in the last four years than any time in the last two decades. When Anne Romney took to the podium last Thursday night, with her perfectly quaffed helmet of blonde hair and stated, "We are taking our country back," I couldn't help but feel that the subtext was: "We're taking it back from Obama and the blacks."

Paul Ryan's relationship with Deneeta Pope was in the early 90s, the same decade that Carol Moseley Braun became the first African-American woman to be elected to the United States Senate and Oprah Winfrey became the most successful media mogul on TV. Interracial dating might still have been taboo to some, but it seemed like as a nation, we were making strides towards racial tolerance in our personal lives -- even if structural and institutional racism prevailed.

Ryan's party affiliation -- and his seeming political shift from his days of crossing the racial divide and rocking to Rage Against the Machine -- got me thinking. Have attitudes about interracial dating changed for the new generation, for the men and women like Paul Ryan, who grew up on hip-hop as a mainstream cultural phenomenon, lived their entire lives in the post-civil rights era and now have Obama as their president?

The good news is yes, they have changed and old racist attitudes are diminishing. According to a the latest study by PEW Research Center, America is at 83% approval rating of interracial relationships. (93% of Millennials support it). Forty years ago, it was 25%.

But has interracial dating gone post-racial? Not exactly, says Dr. Jerry Mendelsohn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, lead author of a recent study that looked at online dating racial preferences. When it comes to interracial dating, whites, for the most part, stay within their race. The study, which was conducted between 2009 and 2011, looked at both stated preferences and behavior of whites and African-Americans.

"Overall," said Mendelsohn, "whites stated a preference for a partner of the same race and behaved in that way." The reluctance of whites to contact blacks on online dating sites was true even for those who claimed they were indifferent to race. This was true across age ranges.

"Conversely," Mendelsohn adds, those who said they were indifferent to the race of a partner were most likely to be young, male and black. Although black participants initiated contact to members of their own race more than to whites, they were ten times more likely to contact whites than vice-versa. Researchers also tracked the respondents once they received a message from a potential partner. Again, whites were most likely to respond to members of their own race, and only 5% (of both men and women) responded.

Why do whites still prefer to date within their race? "We can't say for sure," says Mehdelsohn. What's interesting is that younger (18-30) whites are more likely to state that they are open to dating African-Americans, even if their behavior doesn't support it. "It seems that while segregation doesn't exist in reality, psychologically, many whites act as if it does."

"We're a ways off to being in a post-racial era with dating," says Mendelson, but he remains hopeful because the data on reciprocation is more encouraging than the data on the initiation of contacts. "It appears that crossing the racial boundary is very difficult, especially for whites, but once the boundary has been crossed, i.e., once participants have been contacted by someone of a different race or ethnicity, they are more open to the possibility of an interracial date."

Or could it be whites of this generation, particularly those who deploy modern day means of hooking up, are as close-minded when it comes to interracial dating today as they were in the 1990s?

Bakari Kitwana, author of the forthcoming book Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era (Third World Press) and Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop (Basic/Civitas) says it's a leap to suggest that white kids are more close-minded today. However, he does believe that since Obama's presidency, race relations have grown more contentious, in part because the right wing is not afraid to play the race card.

"The conservative analysis of race has become normalized in public discourse," adds Kitwana. "As a result, racial division and animosity as well as conservative ideas about race have come to permeate talk shows, comments on blogs, opinion polls and online dating sites."

If Kitwana is right, even though there have been positive shifts in national values toward cultural understanding, post-racial America is not here. Paul Ryan's past relationship and the online dating study further prove we still have a long way to go in unraveling the complexities of race in America.