USA TODAY, November 08, 2011

Interracial marriage: More accepted, still growing by Sharon Jayson

The dating message Kelsi Hasden got from her parents was more than tolerant.

“It was always clear that pretty much anybody from any racial background would be acceptable,” she says. Her mother is white, and her father is black.

“I’m pretty dark-complected. A lot of people think I’m Hispanic,” says Hasden, 26, of Jacksonville, who last year married Brian Hasden, 28, who is white.

“I’ve dated black guys, white guys, Hispanics,” she says. “Race, color, how people identify doesn’t really cross my mind.”

Research has found young adults today have more friends of diverse racial backgrounds than past generations and are more willing to have relationships with those of other races and cultures. “We do not feel a need to be diverse, and we do not seek out relationships for that purpose. It is just who we are,” says Jess Rainer in The Millennials, a book he co-authored about his peers born between the early 1980s and 2000.

So it’s no surprise that greater numbers today are “marrying out,” meaning outside of their race. The percentage was 14.6% in 2008, up from 6.7% in 1980, according to a new analysis of Census data by researchers at Ohio State University and Cornell University. The data include only married couples, not the growing segment of unmarried cohabiters; experts expect the intermarriage trend to continue as some of those mixed-race couples head to the altar. An estimated 4.5 million married couples in the USA are interracial, according to 2011 Census data released last week from the Current Population Survey.

A USA TODAY/Gallup poll released in September found that 86% of Americans approve of black-white marriages, compared with 48% in 1991. Among ages 18-37, 97% approved.

“Where you live, your education level, where you work and where you go to school determine the pool of partners that we have,” says Ruth Zambrana, director of the Consortium on Race, Gender and Ethnicity at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Marrying later matters

One reason for the rising number of interracial unions is that the “balance of power” between young adults and their parents has changed a lot, says Michael Rosenfeld, associate professor of sociology at Stanford University in California. “The family of origin’s ability to constrain who you marry has dramatically declined; that’s one of the reasons we have so much more family diversity, including interracial diversity.”

Older average ages for first marriage (now 28.7 for men, 26.7 for women) also have fueled more mixing, Rosenfeld says. People at 28 “have an education and a job and are pretty independent. If they choose a partner and if Grandma does not want to talk to them anymore, that’s Grandma’s problem.” Parents “have to adapt to whatever partner their child chooses.”

Mixed-race relationships are still more common among gay than heterosexual couples, and unmarried heterosexual couples are more likely to be interracial than married ones, because families create an “extra layer of static,” he says. “Somebody’s future mother-in-law is just not in agreement, and they think, ‘Am I going to have to put up with this the rest of my life?’ Family still represents a substantial bar a lot of couples can’t get past.”

Amy Wise, 46, who is white, and her husband, Jamie Wise, 48, who is black, have been married 18 years, and she says that his family is now “very loving.” But, she says, “it took years to get to that point.”

The couple, of Chula Vista, Calif., have one daughter, Tatiana, 17. He works at a home-improvement store, and she’s a writer and blogger who chronicles their interracial family.

Reactions remain strong

In public, “it’s always, ‘Oh, you’re together?’ ” Amy Wise wrote recently. “Really? Are ‘we’ such a shock? This is Southern California, for goodness sake, and last I checked it is 2011. Isn’t it?”

For some interracial couples, experts say the level and intensity of public reaction to their partnering depends to a large extent on their location and races. Some interracial couples get stares; others barely a nod.

Asian-white pairings, especially Asian women and white men, are so common many “don’t even look at that at all,” says Kevin Noble Maillard, associate professor of law at Syracuse University in New York.

“It differs from state to state, but maybe it could be there in a generation for the other races,” says Maillard, co-editor of Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World, a book to be published in January about society after the 1967 Supreme Court decision declaring any ban on marriages between people of different races to be unconstitutional.

“It’s a more diverse world than it used to be,” says attorney Michael Karlan, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based social and networking group Professionals in the City, which sponsors interracial dating events, as well as events for specific racial and ethnic groups. “I’ve seen more people going across racial bounds.”

Black-white marriages soar

The Cornell-Ohio State analysis found that black-white marriages increased threefold, from 3% in 1980 to 10.7% in 2008, while the growth in Hispanic-white marriages has slowed and the percentage of Asian-white marriages dipped.

Cornell sociologist Dan Lichter, who co-authored the research, published last month in the Journal of Marriage and Family, says the places where people meet — schools, organizations, the workplace — are still highly segregated, which “keeps people from developing friendships, romantic relationships and marriages” outside their race.

Reuben Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology at The City College of New York, sees similar patterns.

A yet-unpublished study he presented to the American Sociological Association in August found that “any couple that involved a black member is more likely to have met in a public setting, an unintroduced way, compared to other couples,” who tend to meet through friends or groups, such as school, work or the neighborhood. That “suggests traditional meeting places in America are largely about policing the boundaries,” he says. The study used data compiled in 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 3,009 couples in serious romantic relationships.

Asian men and black women are the most likely to be excluded as potential mates, says sociologist Cynthia Feliciano, an associate professor of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California-Irvine, who has studied interracial dating preferences among 6,070 heterosexual Internet dating profiles of people ages 18-50.

Whites are the least open to interracial dating and are much more likely to date only whites than are blacks, Latinos or Asians. “The dating preferences of whites are primarily driving the fact that intermarriage rates are so low,” she says.

Proximity, diversity, power

Availability also may be a factor in mixed-race dating, at least for Latinos, she adds. “In New York and Atlanta, where there’s a higher proportion of blacks in the metro area, they are more open to dating blacks than in L.A.,” where there are plenty of Latinos to date.

Lichter’s work on Hispanics also suggests that rates of intermarriage with whites are being affected by immigration, which offers more available Hispanics to marry.

Hasden, a shift supervisor at a coffeehouse, and her husband, a software developer, attend her father’s annual family reunion, where “all the black women marry black men,” but “a lot of the black men have married white women,” she says.

More black women should look across color lines for partners, as black men have, suggests Stanford University law professor Ralph Richard Banks, author of Is Marriage for White People? out in September.

The pool of black men is smaller than the pool of black women, he says, because many black men of prime marriage age are incarcerated and lag behind black women educationally, which affects earning potential and makes them less desirable partners.

“Relationships may be about love and devotion, but they form in a market. In the African-American relationship market, men have a lot more options. The more options you have, the more power you have,” Banks says. “Black women are at a power disadvantage.”

Some young people also meet partners from around the world.

Josh Katz, 29, of San Mateo, Calif., and Hitomi Yoshida, 33, a dietitian in Kamaishi, Japan, met in Japan in 2008 in a cooking class he taught. Katz, who teaches English as a Second Language, says they plan to marry when she arrives in the USA later this year. “I lived in Japan five years of my adult life,” Katz says. “Everyone was Japanese, so whoever I would date, I would be in an interracial relationship.”