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Could More Interracial Marriages Cure Inequality?

On the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision clearing the path for interracial marriage, Richard Korman examines the argument that more intermarriage would create more equality.

True to its name, GOOD magazine happily reports that Americans of differing races are intermarrying more than ever and "that it's a clear indication that attitudes and behaviors are shifting with the times." In the middle of a colorful infographic on GOOD's website is an illustration of a black groom and white bride.

Before we pat ourselves on the back for our open-mindedness about race, comparatively few blacks and whites rush hand in hand to the altar. Instead, it remains the least common type of interracial union. Asians, it turns out, are most open to marrying whites.

Sociologist George Yancey of the University of North Texas has looked at interracial intimacy through the prism of Internet dating preferences. He found that blacks who as a group may support interracial marriage in principal — preventing intermarriage was a goal of segregation — remain more reluctant than other groups to date and marry whites.

"It shows me how much we're still a racialized nation and that has a bigger impact than we want to admit in people's lives, in that they would use race so prominently in choosing potential people for dating," Yancey says.

What's at stake for some sociologists and black scholars is one mark of the kind of successful assimilation through which U.S. society has processed other minorities. Joseph R. Washington, Jr., author of Marriage in Black and White, asked whether "brotherhood and sisterhood in black and white within the immediate or very near family" shouldn't be part of the American dream and creed.

And Harvard Sociologist Orlando Patterson has noted how other minority groups benefit through intermarriage from exchanging everything from child-rearing techniques to cultural traditions.

"For nonblacks, assimilation is alive and well in America," Patterson wrote in 2009, in an "endlessly dynamic two-way cultural process. The great exception to this process of social incorporation is black Americans."

Yancey's research puts some details to that generalization. His most recently published article on racial preferences in dating appeared in the winter 2009 issue of Sociological Quarterly. It also involved dating preferences drawn from Yahoo in June 2005.

Yancey divided the country into nine regions and always used dater profiles, 20 men and 20 women, from the largest city in each region. He also chose at random three cities with more than 25,000 inhabitants and five cities with fewer. From the medium-sized cities (but not the largest among them) he selected five male and five female profiles. From the small cities he took two male and two female profiles. If a city didn't have any profiles, he picked a similarly sized city at random to take its place.

While some published studies have suggested that education and economic status trump race as a matrimonial selector, Yancey says race remains "more important than religion, politics and occupational status."

And while voting data showed young Americans were more likely than their elders to vote for Barack Obama (himself the product of an interracial marriage), youth didn't necessarily imply open-mindedness in interracial dating. Fewer than half of the Yahoo registrants aged 18 to 25 were open to dating someone of another race (45.4 percent), although that's still about double the acceptance rate of their elders: Fewer than one in four people over the age of 55 were willing.

While fewer than six out of 10 blacks were open to the idea of just dating a white person, he found, more than eight out of 10 Hispanics and Asian Americans were willing. Slightly fewer than half of whites, or European Americans, were willing to date blacks, while six out of 10 whites were willing to date an Asian American.

Blacks are the least-desired dating partners, too, Yancey found, with only 49.2 percent of whites willing to date them. Asian Americans are the most open to interracial dating.

What makes black-white marriages so costly? A combination of ethnic pride, family and peer pressure and alienation.

"The distinct alienation African Americans experience likely leads to a comparatively lower level of trust of majority group members as romantic partners," Yancey said in a recent telephone interview.

While his data is from 2005, Yancey doubts there's been more than a gradual change in attitudes since Obama’s election as U.S. president in 2008.

"A lot of people looked at Obama's election as evidence of a post-racial society," Yancey says. "We're not there yet. Obama's lesson does mean something and his election is something, but it's not the end."

Laws banning the marriage of blacks and whites go back to Colonial days. In 1661 in Maryland, for example, a free English white woman who married a slave was required to become a slave herself — usually enough to discourage a relationship. With slavery’s end and Reconstruction, new lines were drawn on sex and marriage between black and white. By 1930, 30 states banned interracial marriage. Rarely did opponents of the bans advocate racial intermarriage outwardly.

Over time, some states ended anti-miscegenation laws on their own. But not even the 1960s leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement, who indirectly helped pave the way for acceptance of interracial marriage, made a public priority of eradicating the remaining anti-miscegenation laws. They feared that openly promoting interracial romance would drain support from civil rights, write Yancey and co-author Richard Lewis Jr. in Interracial Families: Current Concepts and Controversies.

The critical act in legalizing interracial marriage in all states thus fell to newlyweds Mildred and Richard Loving in 1958. Five weeks after the couple — she black, he white — married in Washington, D.C., sheriff’s deputies burst into the bedroom of their rural Virginia home and arrested the pair for violating Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

The couple fought back in court, and on June 12, 1967, the Lovings won a Supreme Court decision that finally overturned the right of states to enforce bans on interracial marriages. Washington, D.C., now officially recognizes the anniversary as Loving Day.

The Loving decision in 1967 came in the same year as the release of a movie supporting interracial marriage, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and the high-profile wedding of the Secretary of State’s daughter to a black man. After Loving, states rescinded their bans — some which had gone unenforced for a long time — and interracial marriages have increased while objections to them diminished.

But even with a threefold increase since 1980, the total number of black-white married couples stood at 550,000 in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 Current Population Survey.

That’s one in four of the 2.4 million interracially married couples, itself a fraction of the 60.8 million married couples in the United States. (The Census Bureau first recognized Hispanics as an ethnic/racial category in 1980.)

The idea of blacks as socially isolated isn't new. Nathan Glazer, writing in The Public Interest in 1995, said "blacks stand out uniquely among the array of ethnic and racial groups in the degree to which marriage remains within the group.

Yancey isn't concerned about blacks losing their distinct identity through intermarriage. "I don't fear the loss of culture as much as the pluralists do because I believe when we interact with people, we will lose some aspects of culture anyway," he says. Intermarriage triggers awareness about racial assumptions and thoughts and beliefs and culture, and Yancey says that's a good thing.

But black-white interracial marriage and assimilation won't by itself create a new age or racial harmony. “The freedom to intermarry is a positive thing we need to have in society, but I’m not of the opinion that this is the solution. I think if we do deal with racial animosity more intermarriages will be the result.”

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