Marriage is an important social institution. In every society, family values and social norms are in place to proscribe appropriate behavior regarding mate selection. Mate selection follows the pattern of like marries like—people aspire to marry those of the same age, race and ethnicity, educational attainment, religion, or social class. But then, finding an exact match in every characteristic is difficult. Matching based on certain characteristics may become more important than on some others. In most societies religion and race are often the two most important criteria. Religious and racial group boundaries are most likely the hardest to cross in marriage markets. In the United States, religious boundaries are breaking down and interfaith marriages have become more common over recent generations. Marriages crossing racial boundaries, on the other hand, still lag behind. This is not surprising because American society has a long history of racial inequality in socioeconomic status as a result of racial prejudice and discrimination. Race boundary is the most difficult barrier to cross.
Nevertheless, the racial marriage barrier in the United States appears to be weakening as well, at least for certain groups. Americans have had more contact opportunities with people of different racial groups in recent decades than in the past because increasingly, they work and go to school with colleagues from many groups. Because racial gaps in income have narrowed, more members of racial minorities can afford to live in neighborhoods that were previously monopolized by whites. Physical proximity creates opportunities to reduce stereotypes and to establish interracial connections and friendships. In addition, mixed-race individuals born to interracially married couples tend to help narrow social distance across racial groups because of their racially heterogeneous friend networks. The growth of the mixed-race population further blurs racial boundaries.
Attitudes toward interracial marriage have shifted over time as a result. In 1958, a national survey asked Americans for the first time for their opinions of interracial marriage. Only 4 percent of whites approved of intermarriage with blacks. Almost 40 years later, in 1997, 67 percent of whites approved of such intermarriages. Blacks were not asked this question until 1972; they have been much likelier to approve of intermarriage, reaching 83 percent in 1997. Social scientists take such expressions of attitudes with a grain of salt. Respondents who answer attitude questions in a survey may simply reflect their desire to fit in with the rest of society. Despite misgivings, people today may feel that it is inappropriate to express reservations about racial intermarriage. Many Americans, it appears, remain uneasy about interracial intimacy generally—and most disapprove of interracial relationships in their own families. Indeed, support for interracial marriage by white Americans lags far behind their support of interracial schools (96 percent), housing (86 percent), and jobs (97 percent). Still, such relationships are on the increase. Nationwide, interracial marriages have increased from only 310,000, accounting for .7 percent of all marriages in 1970, to about 1.5 million, 2.6 percent of all marriages in 2000. The actual number would be much greater if marriages between Hispanics and non-Hispanics were taken into account as well. The upward trend in intermarriage seemingly signals improved racial/ethnic relations, the incorporation of racial/ethnic minorities into American society, and the breakdown of racial/ethnic distinctions. Intermarriage, however, varies widely across racial groups.
Who pairs up with whom partly depends on the population size of each racial group in the United States. The larger the group, the more likely group members are to find marriageable partners of their own race. The U.S. Census Bureau classifies race into four major categories: whites, African Americans, Asian Americans, and American Indians. Hispanics can belong to any of the four racial groups but are considered as one separate minority group. Although whites form the largest group—about 70 percent of the population—just 4 percent of married whites aged 20 to 34 in 2000 had nonwhite spouses. The percent of interracial marriages is much higher for U.S.-born racial minorities: 9 percent for African Americans, 39 percent for Hispanics, 56 percent for American Indians, and 59 percent for Asian Americans (who account for less than 4 percent of the total population). To be sure, differences in population size for each group account for part of the variation in interracial marriage. For example, the Asian population is much smaller than the white population, which means that one Asian-white marriage affects the percentage of interracial marriage much more for Asians than for whites. Also because of their numbers, although just 4 percent of whites are involved in interracial marriages, 92 percent of all interracial marriages include a white partner. Clearly, racial minorities have greater opportunities to meet whites in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods than to meet members of other minority groups.
Given population size differences, comparing rates of intermarriage among groups can be difficult. Statistical models used by social scientists nevertheless can account for group size, identify to the extent to which any group is marrying out more or less than one would expect given their population group size, and then reveal what else affects intermarriage. Results show that the lighter a group’s skin color, the higher the rate of intermarriage with white Americans. Hispanics who label themselves as racially “white” are most likely to marry non-Hispanic
whites. Asian Americans and American Indians are next in their levels of marriage with whites. Hispanics who do not consider themselves racially white have low rates of intermarriage with whites. African Americans are least likely of all racial minorities to marry whites. Darker skin, in America, is associated with discrimination, lower educational attainment, lower income and residential segregation. Even among African Americans, those of lighter tone tend to do better both in the job market and in the marriage market.
Highly educated minority members often attend integrated colleges, work in integrated surroundings, and live in neighborhoods that are integrated. Although they develop a strong sense of their group identity in such environments, they also find substantial opportunities for interracial contact, friendship, romance, and marriage. College-educated men and women are more likely to marry interracially than those with less education. The fact that Asian Americans attend college at relatively high rates helps to explain their high level of intermarriage with whites. The major exceptions to the strong effect of educational attainment on interracial marriage are African Americans.
Although middle-class African Americans increasingly live in integrated neighborhoods, African Americans still remain much more segregated than other minorities. College-bound African Americans often choose historically black colleges or colleges with a large and potentially supportive black student body. Their opportunities for contact with whites, therefore, are limited. After leaving school, well-educated African Americans are substantially less likely to live next to whites than are well-educated Hispanics and Asian Americans. One reason is that middle-class black Americans are so numerous that they can form their own middle-class black neighborhoods, while in most areas middle-class Hispanic and Asian American communities are smaller and often fractured by ethnic differences. In addition, racial discrimination against African Americans also plays a role. Studies demonstrate that whites resist having black neighbors much more than they resist having Hispanic or Asian American neighbors.
High levels of residential segregation accompanied by high levels of school segregation, on top of a pronounced history of racial discrimination and inequality, lower African Americans’ opportunities for interracial contact and marriage. The geographic distance between blacks and whites is in many ways rooted in the historical separation between the two groups. In contrast, Hispanic and Asian Americans’ distances from whites have more to do with their current economic circumstances. As those improve, they come nearer to whites geographically, socially, and matrimonially.
Black-white couples show a definite pattern: About two-thirds have a black husband and a white wife. Asian American–white couples lean the other way; three-fifths have an Asian American wife. Sex balances are roughly even for intermarried couples that include a white and a Hispanic or an American Indian. Clearly, white men have disproportionately more Asian American wives while white women have more black husbands.
In the mid-twentieth century, Robert Merton (1941) proposed a status exchange theory to explain the high proportion of black men–white women marriages. He suggested that men who have high economic or professional status but who carry the stigma of being black in a racial caste society trade their social position for whiteness by marriage. Meanwhile, some social scientists argue that racialized sexual images also encourage marriages between white women and black men. Throughout Europe and the West, fair skin tone has long been perceived as a desirable feminine characteristic; African Americans share that perception. For example, black interviewers participating in a national survey of African Americans rated black women interviewees with lighter skin as more attractive than those with darker skin. But they did not consider male interviewees with light skin any more attractive than darker-skinned men. Other social scientists argue that the sex imbalance is associated with the legacy of slavery. During the plantation era, the miscegenation was mostly marked by white males’ exploitation of slave females. The lingering effect of this legacy discourages African American women from marrying whites despite their low rates of in-marriage due to the low availability of marriageable African American men.
Asian Americans have a different pattern; most marriages with whites have a white husband. Some speculate that Asian American women tend to marry white men because they perceive Asian American men to be rigidly traditional on sex roles and white men as more nurturing and expressive. Asian cultures’ emphasis on the male line of descent may pressure Asian American men to carry on the lineage by marrying “one of their own.” But what attracts white men to Asian American women? Some scholars suggest that it is the widespread image of Asian women as submissive and hyperfeminine. On TV and in cinema, relationships between whites and Asian Americans, though still rare, almost always involve white men and Asian American women. Yet, this image does not explain a smaller but significant proportion of marriages involving white women and Asian American men. Indeed,
education may be part of the reason, given that Asian American men and women have more years of schooling and highly educated minorities are much more likely to marry whites than their less educated counterparts. Yet perceptions of Asian Americans in American society are important as well. Asian Americans are generally believed to be smart, even though the spouses of some whites are not as educated. The stereotype is consistent with the social construction of Asian Americans as a model minority. This belief may well be another reason for a relatively high level of interracial marriages involving whites and Asian Americans.
SEE ALSO Family; Marriage; Miscegenation; Race Relations
Alba, Richard D., and Victor Nee. 2003. Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Merton, Robert K. 1941. Intermarriage and the Social Structure: Fact and Theory. Psychiatry 4 (3): 361–374.
Qian, Zhenchao. 2005. Breaking the Racial Taboo: Interracial Marriage in America. Contexts 4 (4): 33–37.
Qian, Zhenchao, and Daniel T. Lichter. 2007. Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage. American Sociological Review 72 (1): 68–94.
Root, Maria P. P. 2001. Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Interracial marriage is the term used to describe marriages that take place between people who are from different racial or ethnic groups. Intercultural marriages are defined as marriages between people who come from two different cultural backgrounds. A marriage between a woman from China, whose culture emphasizes the needs of the family over the needs of the individual, and a man from the United States, whose culture emphasizes individual autonomy, would be an example of a intercultural marriage. Whereas relationships between people from different ethnic and cultural groups are becoming increasingly common, there are substantial increases in the number of individuals engaging in interracial or intercultural marriages. However, even though the number and societal acceptance of interracial marriages is growing, little has been written about these marriages, the reasons for their increase, or their strengths and liabilities.
Growth of Interracial Marriage
The United States has historically promoted the concept of purity, or the separation of the races. Laws were enacted to keep the races separate and to prohibit marriages between members of different races, especially between people who by virtue of marriage would not maintain the purity of racial-ethnic groups. These laws were often specifically worded to make marriages illegal between Caucasians and African Americans (Davis 1991). In 1664 Maryland enacted the first anti-miscegenation law in the United States, and by the 1700s five additional states had enacted such laws. Between 1942 and 1967, fourteen states repealed these laws through legislative action. In 1967 the Supreme Court of the United States (Loving v. Virginia) declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. However, due to the stigma associated with these unions, the court's decision resulted in little increase in the numbers of interracial marriages.
The number of interracial marriages has steadily grown since the 1980s and has increased rapidly in the early twenty-first century. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 1990 there were 1,348,000 interracial marriages, compared to 651,000 in 1980. The growth of interracial marriages is even more pronounced when one notes that the 1960 statistics indicated only 149,000 interracial marriages. The rise in interracial marriages in the United States coincides with changes in the legal status of interracial marriages and in the changing attitudes of Americans towards individuals engaged in interracial marriages and relationships. In U.S. Census Bureau (2000) data, the number of interracial marriages rose to slightly more than 3,000,000 and comprised approximately 5.5 percent of all marriages. Some of the growth can be accounted for by declining societal prejudice towards—and less shame experienced by—people in interracial marriages. In addition, changes in the census forms encourage individuals to identify all parts of their racial composition.
The growth in interracial marriages is not occurring only in the United States. For example, the number of interracial marriages in China between Shanghainese (individuals who live in Shanghai, China) and individuals from other countries increased 67 percent from 1991 to 1992. In 1996, 3.5 percent of the marriages in Shanghai took place between Shanghainese with foreigners.
The growth in interracial marriages is not uniform. In other words, interracial marriages have become more common for some racial and ethnic groups, but not for others. In the United States it is estimated that 40.6 percent of Japanese Americans and 53.7 percent of Native Americans engage in interracial marriages. However, only 1.2 percent of black women and 3.6 percent of black males engage in interracial marriages. According to Anita Foeman and Teresa Nance (1999), these small percentages are due in part to the continued condemnation of black-white intermixing.
Difficulties in Interracial Marriages
The problems encountered by interracial couples are often the result of negative societal attitudes about interracial relationships. Black-Caucasian unions have the lowest frequency of occurrence because of longstanding negative beliefs about these marriages. Studies have indicated that, in general, Caucasians tend to disapprove of interracial marriages, and blacks tend to approve. Other research suggests that people engage in interracial relationships due to self-hate or rebelliousness. In addition, there is some question as to whether or not partners in interracial relationships reciprocate love (Gaines et al. 1999). Given that the dominant culture tends to disdain black-Caucasian unions, it is difficult to imagine how these couples are able to maintain their relationships.
Asian Americans have also experienced difficulties in their interracial marriages. Asian Americans engage in more interracial relationships than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. Laws forbidding interracial marriages between Asians and Caucasians were common in the United States. For example, in 1901 California extended the 1850 Marriage Regulation Act to include Mongolians (i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Koreans), and in 1933 the law was further extended to include Malays (i.e., Filipinos) (Kitano, Fugino, and Sato 1998). These laws, like all other anti-miscegenation laws, were overturned following a state judicial decision in California (Perez v. Sharp 1948) and a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Loving v. Virginia). Even though the results of these cases made interracial marriages legal, the negative societal perspective on such unions has been slow to change.
Bok-Lim Kim (1998) points out that since World War II, marriages between Asian women (specifically women from Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam) and U.S. military men have become a legacy of United States military involvement. He notes that many of those marriages took place because of the low socioeconomic status of many of the women who lived near U.S. military bases, and the low self-esteem experienced as a result of their low economic conditions. He also points out that these interracial marriages displayed undaunted courage and optimism in spite of the obstacles they faced due to language and cultural differences and the lack of support from their families and communities in both countries. However, Kim also points out that the Asian women often carry the burden of cultural norms that provide severe penalties for marriage outside their ethnic group (out-marriages). Even though there has been improvement in the acceptance of Asian outmarriages by their families, there continue to be difficulties because of cultural differences.
Interracial relationships and marriages remain controversial for several additional reasons. Many Asian Americans are alarmed because of the rising number of interracial unions, which they believe reduces the pool of eligible men and women who could otherwise engage in same-culture unions. Some Asian Americans are concerned that, because of the high number of out-marriages, distinct groups of Asians may disappear within a few generations. Additionally, whereas so many Asian women are out-marrying, there is the fear that many Asian-American men will remain unmarried because of the dwindling number of available Asian-American women (Fujino 1997). A similar fear is expressed by African-American men and women. As African-American men and women increase their level of education and move to higher economic levels, fewer and fewer members of their race are available for marriage. This often leads to frustration on the part of African Americans who seek to marry someone of their own race, and also leads to increased levels of out-marriage, as increases in income and educational levels occur.
Some of the difficulties experienced by interracial couples are unique and a direct result of the interracial experience. The myths that surround interracial couples can also be stumbling blocks to a healthy marriage. In a study conducted by Richard Watts and Richard Henriksen (1999), Caucasian females report that, when engaged in interracial marriages with black males, they often receive the following messages: "Black men belong with black women because they will treat them better than white women" and "Biracial children will always be referred to as black and, therefore, should have a black mother." The Watts and Henriksen (1999) study also found that problems and difficulties are also experienced because of the mythical messages received from the Caucasian culture. These include: "Black men only marry white women for status symbols or upward mobility," "Interracial marriages do not work; therefore, you will lose your spouse to someone else," "Those who engage in interracial marriages must hate their parents," and "Those who engage in interracial relationships or marriages must have psychological difficulties." The problems faced by couples involved in black-Caucasian unions are also experienced by those involved in other interracial unions. However, many couples state that the reasons they got married are not that much different than same-race couples.
Reasons for Entering into Interracial Marriages
Like other couples deciding to spend their lives together in marriage, interracial couples have many reasons for their choice to marry. The words of a Caucasian female engaged in an interracial marriage point out the importance of recognizing that interracial couples are attracted to each other for the same reasons as homogeneous couples.
People should first look inside themselves before they look at others and judge them. They should remember that a couple is made up of two people, not two races or cultures. Like other women, I was attracted to my husband because he is considerate, caring, and someone I enjoy spending time with. . . . Healthy families raise healthy children no matter the race or culture of the parents. (Watts and Henriksen 1999, p. 70)
Research supports this woman's perspective. Interracial couples tend to marry because of four important facts: shared common interests, the attractiveness of the partner, shared similar entertainment interests, and socioeconomic similarity. Racial selection factors tend to be less important in selecting an interracial partner for marriage than nonracial factors (Lewis, Yancey, and Bletzer 1997). In other words, as with other couples, interracially married couples are typically attracted to each other based on similarities rather than differences.
Interracial dating is affected by propinquity, attractiveness, and acculturation. Research involving Asian-American out-dating demonstrates that propinquity is the strongest predictor of whether or not the individual will engage in interracial dating. Acculturation and assimilation have also been shown to be positively related to the incidence of interracial marriages. When removed from the demand for intraethnic relationships imposed on Asian Americans by family and the community, Asian Americans are more likely to explore relationships with partners of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, often resulting in interracial marriages (Fujino 1997). These factors are true for other racial and ethnic groups as well.
Resiliency in Interracial Marriages
Many of the people engaged in stable, well-functioning interracial marriages tend to be older, more educated, and have higher incomes, all factors seen as increasing marital stability. Interracial couples that appear to be more vulnerable to marital difficulties tend to have lower incomes, less education, and limited residence in the United States of a foreign-born partner. The length of residence can amplify cultural differences in the relationship and generate or exacerbate marital discord. Marital stability is also affected by the particular racial combination. Racial prejudice is often cited as a main reason why, in some racial groups, out-marriages are rare and in others are more common. In addition, racial prejudice has been shown to affect the resiliency of the marriage based on the partner's ability to cope with the prejudice (Chan and Wethington 1998).
Anna Y. Chan and Elaine Wethington (1998) identified several factors that could facilitate resiliency in interracial marriages. First, interracial marriages tend to be more stable and involve fewer conflicts than other types of interracial relationships. Second, whereas interracial couples and families face unique challenges, they tend to develop mature coping and conflict-resolution styles. Third, given that well-functioning interracial couples often have higher levels of education, they tend to have superior resources for coping with the problems they encounter. Finally, interracial couples tend to build support networks of like-minded people and build strong bonds with each other as a means to overcome adversity.
Any view of interracial marriages must be taken in light of the current worldview of interracial relationships. In the current global climate, there is both increased tension and greater openness. People are more likely to engage in activities that cross racial and ethnic boundaries. However, there also continues to be prejudice and fear about racial ethnic groups with whom many people have little contact. Nevertheless, when people strive to understand the traditions, values, and beliefs that are endemic to the many groups that make up our global societies, then they will be better able—and, it is hoped, more inclined—to work together for the good of all.
chan, a. y., and wethington, e. (1998). "factors promoting marital resilience among interracial couples." in resiliency in native american and immigrant families, ed. h. i. mccubbin and e. a. thompson. thousand oaks, ca: sage publications.
davis, f. j. (1991). who is black? one nation's definition.university park: pennsylvania state university press.
foeman, a. k., and nance, t. (1999). "from miscegenation to multiculturalism: perceptions and stages of interracial relationship development." journal of black studies 29:540–57.
fujino, d. c. (1997). "the rates, patterns and reasons forforming heterosexual interracial dating relationships among asian americans." journal of social and personal relationships 14:809–28.
gaines, s. o., jr.; rios, d. i.; granrose, c. s.; bledsoe,k. l.; farris, k. r.; youn, m. s. p.; and garcia, b. f. (1999). "romanticism and interpersonal resource exchange among african american-anglo and other interracial couples." journal of black psychology 25:461–89.
kim, b-l. c. (1998). "marriages of asian women andamerican military men: the impact of gender andculture." in re-visioning family therapy: race, culture, and gender in clinical practice, ed. m. mcgoldrick. new york: guilford press.
kitano, h. h. l.; fujino, d. c.; and sato, j. t. (1998). "interracial marriages: where are the asian americans and where are they going?" in handbook of asian american psychology, ed. c. lee and n. w. s. zane. thousand oaks, ca: sage publications.
lewis, r., jr.; yancey, g.; and bletzer, s. s. (1997). "racial and nonracial factors that influence spouse choice in black/white marriages." journal of black studies 28:60–78.
watts, r. e., and henriksen, r. c., jr. (1999). "perceptions of a white female in an interracial marriage." the family journal: counseling and therapy for couples and families 7:68–70.
loving v. virginia, 388 us 1, 18 l ed 2d 1010, 87 s ct1817, (1967)
perez v. sharp, 32 cal.2d 711 [l. a. no. 20305. in bank.oct. 1, 1948.]
united states census bureau (2000). "america's families and living arrangements." available from http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/p20-537/2000/tabfg4.txt.
richard c. henriksen jr.
richard e. watts