Love in Black & White: Janet Langhart and Bill Cohen Speak out on Racism and Interracial Marriages

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Spending time with Bill Cohen and Janet Langhart is to be immersed in a great American love story--but also into a frank, sometimes emotional discussion on race and politics and interracial relationships in America.

For some, the couple--he a retired U.S. senator and defense secretary and she a former newscaster and civil rights activist--symbolize love between two people from distinct backgrounds who came together across a "major divide" despite racism and taboos against such unions. For others, the Cohens, now married 12 years, represent a reality viewed with scorn. Interracial marriage still makes some people, including some African-Americans, uncomfortable, if not outright angry.

That's okay with the Cohens. They gladly accept the role of catalysts for discussion, even debate, on race and love in Black and White in a society they say is still plagued with inequities. It is time, they say, to discuss openly why racism and negative views about interracial relationships continue to tinge our society. "It is shameful how we [Blacks] have been treated and continue to be treated in America," says Langhart, known for speaking her mind. "The racism here is a disgrace to a nation that claims to the world it is fair and just. Katrina demonstrated that our dirty little secret of racism isn't a secret anymore.

"Many Americans say they are tired of hearing from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Well, where is the White leadership that is saying to their own, 'This is wrong!'--in the Jena 6 case, the Black girl who [reportedly] was raped [in West Virginia], the Imus issue, the nooses and swastikas. Where is the leadership of the free world, President Bush? It is we, Blacks, who have led America to face up to her claim of justice and equality for all. America is not who she says she is."

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The Cohens maintain that because racism is so pervasive in our society, taboos against Black-White marriages persist. "Bill and I still get those looks and stupid things said to us despite the so-called 'elite' circles we travel in," Langhart reveals. "A U.S. senator once asked Bill which one of my parents was White. When Bill said neither and asked why, the senator replied, 'Well, because she's so intelligent.' That's more than racism, that's stupid. It's interesting, when Bill and I are in public, Blacks recognize Bill and like him--because of his political views and because he is married to me. A group of Black guys at a [Washington] Wizards' game gave him high-fives and said: 'This is a cool dude. He's married to a Sista'... I tease Bill that Black people like him for choosing me, but question me for being with him. This race thing is all so warped."

Both Langhart and Cohen acknowledge that mixed marriages are more accepted by Blacks than society at large. "Yet, within the Black community," says Cohen, "it is as though they are saying, 'She married a White guy, that means she wants to be White.'" He adds that some are confused as to whether Langhart is Hispanic or Arab or African-American. And many are not aware of her social activist background, that she led an effort to get an apology for the lynching of Black men. "Janet--she's Black, trust me," says Cohen. "Janet has always been that way, and has sacrificed her career by speaking out on Black issues. It cost her virtually ever job she's had. She followed Malcolm X more than Dr. King. King was her mentor, but he wouldn't let her march. She was too angry."

In turn, Janet says people don't realize her husband as a senator worked hard to overcome racism and inequities, that "before my husband married me he was on the Senate floor talking about affirmative action," that he was involved in civil rights marches in Maine "when it wasn't cool to be in those kinds of parades."

Regardless, they are devoted to each other. "She is the most exciting woman I know," Cohen says, looking proudly at his wife seated next to him in their Chevy Chase, Md. …