A thought-provoking new study just released by the Journal of Marriage and Family(JMF) finds that interracial marriages between highly educated blacks and whites in the U.S. have increased significantly since 1980. According to the study, marriages between African Americans and whites are increasing rapidly, but remain a small number.
This study has personal relevance for me. I’m the daughter of mixed-race parents (African American and white). I’m married to a white (Jewish) guy. We didn’t get married to be trendy, but I’m intrigued that we are part of a growing demographic where race is no longer an insurmountable barrier when it comes to getting hitched.
But it wasn’t always the case.
My parents met while in graduate school at UCLA (a few years before the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virgina found state laws banning interracial marriage unconstitutional). At the time, my dad’s grandmother refused to speak to my dark skinned, African American mother. After 15 years, my great grandmother offered my mother an apology and a deep friendship developed between the two women.
By 1980, only 5 percent of black men married a white woman, but that increased to 14 percent in 2008. I concur with Qian that racial lines are no longer as stark as they once were.
The most encouraging aspect of the study is the conclusion that that race no longer trumps everything, including education, when it comes to marriage between blacks and whites. According to study author, Zhenchao Qian, “For the first time, we found that highly educated blacks and whites were more likely to intermarry.” I met my husband through my sister when they were both students at Harvard Law School. I’ve always felt I owe a debt of gratitude to the brainy atmosphere of that Ivy League university for bringing my husband and me together.
Of course, many of us have known for years that education plays an important role in facilitating interracial friendships, relationships and even marriages. We all know blacks and whites who have dated and married across racial lines as a result of meeting in college or graduate school. This study gives powerful context to our anectodal experience. Universities, the workplace and the armed forces are institutions that enable individuals to forge bonds based on common interests and experiences that transcend their family, religious and racial backgrounds.
“Racial boundaries are blurring,” reports Qian. Sadly, however, the issue of race still has the potential to destroy families. My husband and I got married in 1999, but I’ve never met his parents. The reason? Race. Or, I should say, racism. My husband became estranged from his parents in law school when they disliked the race of the person he was dating. They remain estranged to this day and it is unlikely they will ever reconcile. Fortunately, the falling out happened before he met me, so I don’t blame myself or take it personally.
Illuminating the challenges that still exist, the JMF study points out that racial boundaries between blacks and whites continue to break down, but are not yet close to disappearing. I agree. I’m an eternal optimist when it comes to the ability of people of different races to develop meaningful friendships and relationships based on mutual trust and respect. My friends are a diverse, multi-racial, multi-cultural group of women. We’ve bonded through college, graduate school, work and our kids. In my personal life, with the one exception of my husband’s parents, I thankfully find that racial barriers are steadily diminishing.
While my husband and I occasionally get the too-hard stare or the look that lingers just a bit too long, we are very comfortable being together. The clichéd, outdated judgments of a random stranger don’t phase us. We don’t often talk about our marriage in terms of race. It’s not necessary. We understand each other completely, sharing the same sense of sarcastic, neurotic, Woody Allen-esque sense of humor and valuing the importance of education. We do, however, talk to our kids about their mixed-race heritage. Fortunately, we live in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the country. At our kids’ school, there are several mixed-race kids and it’s not uncommon to see black and white couples walking hand in hand on the streets of L.A.
Relationships are complicated. As the study points out, “understanding changes in interracial marriages is complex because it involves two different factors... the marriage market of who is available to marry and also individuals’ choices about who they would be willing to marry.” Sometimes we have a preference for people of a certain ethnic or racial background, ether our own or another. Other times, we meet someone and fall in love, never imagining we’d end up with someone of a different race. Life is sweet and mysterious that way.
It’s not at all surprising that black-white marriages are still constrained by racial boundaries, as the study points out. I’ve seen a gaping disconnect between casual dating and taking the more serious step of marriage when it comes to interracial dating. It’s one thing to date outside your race. It’s another matter entirely to marry someone outside your race. Misunderstandings about each other’s culture, combined with family pressure, can be formidable obstacles to black-white marriages. So can concerns about raising a child with a foot in each of two worlds. As the number of mixed-race children rises dramatically, this concern diminishes as well. Role models are everywhere, from the White House to the house down the block.
Fortunately, we’re more enlightened about interracial marriage then ever before. The JMF study inspires and gives welcome clarity to my own personal experiences. My husband and I are proud to be part of a generation of successful, well-adjusted interracial couples who credit higher education with our introduction. It’s only partly coincidence that both my husband and my sister met President Barack Obama, a mixed-race man, at Harvard Law School.
Christina Simon is the co-author of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider's Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles. She also blogs at Beyond the Brochure.
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