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Intermarriage among people of different races, religions, nationalities, and ethnicities would be a subject of little concern in many societies (Degler 1971). It should be expected of a culturally diverse society such as the United States. Indeed, the United States is the most racially and culturally diverse nation in the Western, industrialized world. The heterogeneous composition of the United States should lend itself to a high degree of tolerance and acceptance of diversity in marriage patterns among its constituent groups (Spickard 1989). Since the 1960s, we have seen a rise in the number of intermarriages between different racial groups (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998) and also an increasing number of interfaith marriages (Kalmijn 1993; Lehrer 1998). In order to discuss past, current, and future intermarriage trends, this article examines historical and contemporary trends in black/white intermarriages, past and future directions in Asian American intermarriages, the state of interfaith marriages, and reasons for the increasing number of intermarriages.

History of Black/White Intermarriages

Slavery had its greatest impact on the interracial relations of the Africans brought to the United States. Most of the slaves who came in the beginning were males, with the number of black females not equal to the number of males until 1840. As a result, the number of sexual relations between black slaves and indentured white women was fairly high. Some of these interracial relationships were more than casual contacts and ended in marriage. The intermarriage rate between male slaves and free white women increased to the extent that laws against them were passed as a prohibitive measure. Before the alarm over the rate of intermarriages, male slaves were encouraged to marry white women, thereby increasing the property of the slavemaster, since the children from such unions were also slaves (Jordan 1968).

The end of slavery did not give the black woman any right to sexual integrity. What slavery began, racism and economic exploitation continued to impose on the sexual lives of black women. In the postbellum South, black women were still at the mercy of the carnal desires of white men. According to historians, black women were forced to give up their bodies like animals to white men at random. Many have noted that many southern white men had their first sexual experience with black women. In some cases, the use of black women as sexual objects served to maintain the double standard of sexual conduct in the white South. Many white men did not have sexual relations with white women until they married. Some southern white men were known to joke that until they married, they did not know that white women were capable of sexual intercourse (Cash 1960; Dollard 1957).

It was the protection of the sexual purity of white women that partially justified the establishment of racially segregated institutions in the South. The southern white man assumed that black men had a strong desire for intermarriage and that white women would be open to proposals from black men if they were not guarded from even meeting with them on an equal level. As Bernard (1966) writes, ‘‘The white world’s insistence on keeping Negro men walled up in the concentration camp was motivated in large part by its fear of black male sexuality’’ (p. 75).

The taboo on intermarriage was mostly centered on black men and white women. One reason for this is that white men and black women had engaged in coitus since the first black female slaves entered this country. Some black slave women were forced to engage in sexual relations with their white masters; others did so out of desire. Children resulting from these interracial sexual unions were always considered black, and the prevalent miscegenation of black women and white men has produced much lighter skinned American blacks than their African ancestors.

Traditionally, white fear of interracial relations has focused on the desire to avoid mongrelization of the races. Such a fear lacks any scientific basis, since many authorities on the subject of racial types seriously question that a pure race ever existed on this planet. Most authorities note it as an actual fact that the whole population of the world is hybrid and becoming increasingly so. At any rate, the rate of miscegenation in the past almost certainly casts doubt on any pure race theory for the United States (Day 1972).

Intermarriage is certainly nothing new in the United States. Its meaning and dynamics have, however, changed over the 400 years since blacks entered this country. In the era before slavery, black male and white female indentured servants often mated with each other. During the period of black bondage, most mixed sexual unions took place between white men and female slaves, often involving coercion by the white partner. A similar pattern of miscegenation occurred after slavery, with a white man and a black woman as the typical duo. When blacks moved to larger cities outside the South, the black male–white female pairing became more common. As is commonly known, legal unions between the races were prohibited by law in many states until 1967. But legal prohibitions were not the only deterrent to such biracial unions. This country’s history is replete with acts of terror and intimidation of interracial couples who violated the society’s taboos on miscegenation. While blacks and whites came together in love and marriage over the years, it was generally at a high cost, ranging from death to social ostracism (Stember 1976).

Contemporary Black/White Marriage

Between 1960 and 1990, black/white intermarriages increased fourfold (U.S. Census Bureau 1998). Among the reasons for this increase has been the desegregation of the public school system, the work force, and other social settings. Around 1968, American society witnessed the first significant increase in interracial dating. This was the year that blacks entered predominantly white college campuses in comparatively large numbers. Contemporaneous with this event was the sexual and psychological liberation of white women. While white society disapproved of all biracial dating, the strongest taboo was on the black male–white female bond. These bonds became the dominant figures in the increments of biracial dating. The college campus became an ideal laboratory for experiments in interracial affairs. In the university setting, the blacks and whites who dated were peers, with similar educational backgrounds, interests, and values. Young white women, who were not as racist as their parents, were liberated from parental and community control. Their student cohorts were more accepting of or indifferent to their dating across racial lines. Those changes in interracial dating practices coincided with the civil rights movement and a greater white acceptance of blacks as racial equals.

In the 1970s through 1990s, integration of work settings, neighborhoods, schools, and other public settings has meant that blacks and whites interact much more as equals than in the past. According to a Gallup poll (1997), a majority of blacks go to school, live, and work in places where the population is at least half white or even predominantly white. Only 15 percent of blacks work with mostly or all blacks and 41 percent of blacks live in a mostly or all-black neighborhood. Therefore, it is not surprising that with increasing social interaction there would also be an increasing number of interracial unions.

In addition to these systemic changes, there has been a major change in public attitudes toward biracial couples. According to a Gallup poll (1997), a majority of blacks and whites under the age of 50 say they accept and approve of interracial unions between blacks and whites. Of all the different race-related trends, this change in attitude is the most significant. In 1958, only 4 percent of white Americans approved of marriages between blacks and whites; in 1997, 61 percent approved. However, negative attitudes toward black/white intermarriages still persist. About a quarter of blacks and about 40 percent of whites say they disapprove of interracial marriage. Much of this can be attributed to how different generations view interracial marriages, as well as regional differences. Younger people approve of such marriages, while older black and white Americans are less likely to approve. According to Wilson and Jacobson (1995), age and education are strong predictors of those who are accepting of black/white intermarriages. In their study, they found younger, educated cohorts to be more accepting of such unions, compared to older, less educated cohorts. Moreover, acceptance of such marriages is much lower in certain regions of the United States, such as the South (Gallup Organization 1997). Although these changes in attitudes toward intermarriage seem positive, this poll result could be misleading. Many people tend to give the liberal answer they think is proper or expected when asked about controversial issues such as interracial marriage. However, when confronted with the issue on a very personal level, their response may be much different.

In the past, white families in particular frequently refused to have anything to do with children who entered into interracial marriages (Golden 1954; Porterfield 1982; Spickard 1989). According to Rosenblatt and colleagues (1995), white families compared to black families were most often in opposition. Opposition by white family members was most often based in racist assumptions and stereotypes, but also based in concern about the racism that the couple would face from society at large. Moreover, white families were concerned that marrying interracially meant a poor economic future. Other concerns raised by white families included issues of safety and well-being, as well as the issue of raising a biracial child. The authors found that there was less opposition in black families. Close family members might have been militantly against the marriage, but mothers in black families played a key role in providing acceptance of the interracial marriage. On the other hand, in white families, fathers were the key person in providing acceptance. In both black and white families, families were particularly concerned about their daughters’ marrying interracially. Rosenblatt and colleagues (1995) explain that ‘‘for white families, the roots may include the racism of a dominant group and fear of loss in status. For black families, the roots may include the fear and pain of being connected with the oppressor’’ (p. 69). St. Jean (1998) discusses how black males in families may be more ambivalent about such unions. In previous studies, black women more than black men had tended to disapprove of such intermarriages (Paset and Taylor 1991); however, St. Jean (1998) found quite the opposite. She found that black men had a more difficult time accepting such marriages.

Although many black/white couples are drawn together because of nonracial factors, such as common interests and personal attraction (Lewis et al. 1997), race remains a major factor in their interactions with family, friends, and society at large. Given the persistence of racism, many interracial marriages face rough going. Based on her qualitative research findings, St. Jean (1998) found that although for the ‘‘couples the salience of color seems to diminish after marriage, race consciousness does not diminish. In their everyday lives, they are reminded by Blacks, Whites, relatives and nonrelatives of the inappropriate nature of their association’’ (St. Jean, p. 12). It is a fact that the scars of nearly 400 years of the worst human bondage known are not healed, and disapproval by many black and white people of interracial love affairs is one of the wounds.

Past and Future Directions in Asian American Intermarriages

Since 1990, fueled by immigration from Asia, the Asian and Pacific Islander population has grown at a rate of 4.5 percent per year (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1995). By the year 2000, this population had reached 12.1 million. As this group increases in size, intermarriage will probably occur more frequently (Lee and Fernandez 1998). According to Gordon (1964), the acculturation to American beliefs and values by new immigrants has meant that intermarriage would follow and is an important sign of the assimilation process. Hwang and colleagues (1997) report that Asian Americans with high levels of acculturation and structural assimilation have a high incidence of intermarriage: ‘‘Asian Americans who speak fluent English and who have lived longer in the US were found to have a higher tendency to marry persons from different racial and ethnic groups’’ (p. 770).

Despite the increase in population growth, the intermarriage rate for Asian Americans has declined overall. However, there are several explanations that account for these changes. According to Lee and Fernandez (1998), Asian-American outmarriage from 1980 to 1990 declined significantly from 25 percent to 15 percent based on their analysis of the 5 percent Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) of the 1990 U.S. census. They note that intermarriage levels dropped for Koreans, Filipinos, and Vietnamese. While outmarriage rates among American-born Asians increased, they declined for those foreign-born. They also note that Asian-American women were more likely to outmarry than men and that outmarriage was more common among Japanese Americans, Filipinos, Chinese, and Asian Indians. Lee and Fernandez (1998) further suggest that even though the Asian- American outmarriage rate overall has fallen, Asian interethnic marriages, made up of partners from two Asian ethnicities, has increased from 11 to 21 percent.

According to Shinagawa and Pang (1996), these marriage patterns can be explained through a sociohistorical framework. They define five different historical cohorts: Pre–World War II and World War II (prior to 1946), post–World War II (1946– 1962), the civil rights era (1963–1974), the post- 1960s (1975–1981) and the Vincent Chin cohorts (1982–1990). Because the pre–World War II and World War II cohort experienced antimiscegenation laws, they intermarried with other nonwhites. Those in the post–World War II cohort lived in an era when antimiscegenation laws were struck down and Asian immigrants could now become citizens. At the same time, American soldiers fighting wars in Asia brought back Asian wives. The civil rights era cohort experienced radical changes in terms of race. Racial groups, no longer segregated from each other, were interacting more, and laws were enacted to bar racist discrimination. Asians could now intermarry with whites, and this era saw an increasing number of Asian women marrying white men. The post-1960s cohort experienced the beginning politicization of the Asian-American community. However, intermarriages were still mostly between whites and Asians. Major changes started to happen in the Vincent Chin cohort. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American autoworker in Detroit, was beaten to death by two whites who mistakenly identified him as a Japanese American, angering the Asian-American community and fueling community mobilization and politicization. The murder, which became symbolic of anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination, brought diverse Asian communities together to eradicate discrimination against Asians and bring justice to Vincent Chin’s family (Espiritu 1992). This era was defined by an emerging increasingly coalesced Asian-American community as well as by a growth of the Asian Pacific American population. According to Shinagawa and Pang (1996), these dramatic developments contributed to the growth of interethnic Asian marriages.

Shinagawa and Pang (1996) hypothesize six major reasons why pan-ethnic intermarriages and pan-ethnicity among Asian Americans are on the ascent: (1) the growth of the Asian-American population; (2) the growth of personal and social networks due to these population increases; (3) the growth in the number of educated, middle-class Asian Americans; (4) the acculturation of Asian Americans; (5) shared racial identity; and (6) most importantly, the growing racial consciousness among Asian Americans. According to Espiritu (1992), the construction of pan-Asian ethnicity arose out of a need for political strength and power. Shinagawa and Pang (1996) stress the importance of a pan-Asian ethnic consciousness that has shaped not only political but also marital patterns: ‘‘Deindustrialization, white flight, increased economic competition, anti-immigrant sentiments, hate violence against Asians, the growing sense of despair and hopelessness in the inner cities, and interracial conflicts not only between Whites and Asian Americans but also between racial minority groups all signify racial consciousness by Asian Americans’’ ( p. 144).

Trends in Interfaith Intermarriage

Although interracial marriages have increased, interfaith marriages are much more commonplace. Intermarriage between white ethnics is quite the norm (Lieberson and Waters 1988). Marriages between members of different faiths also happens much more frequently and seems to carry less stigma than interracial coupling. In fact during 1990, 52 percent of Jews were married to non- Jews, while Protestant/Catholic intermarriages have increased significantly (Kalmijn 1991). According to Kalmijn (1991), the increasing importance of similar educational levels in spouse selection and the declining importance of religious differences explains the increase in Protestant/Catholic intermarriages. Using data from the 1987–1988 National Survey of Families and Households, Lehrer (1998) also suggests that intermarriages between Protestants and Catholics have increased steadily. She identifies key variables that play a role in the decision to intermarry. She reports that those with higher levels of education are more likely to intermarry than those with lower levels of education. She also discusses how a premarital pregnancy will increase the likelihood of an intermarriage. Those who are strongly committed to their faith are least likely to intermarry. Despite these increases, Lehrer and Chiswick (1993) report that interfaith marriages are more likely to end in divorce, attributing these high divorce rates to the different religions of the couple. However, they also suggest that conversion by one spouse to the faith of the other produces less conflict and a more harmonious relationship.

Factors in Intermarriages

Although the increasing trend toward intermarriage across ethnicity, religion, and race can be attributed to the increasing interaction between diverse individuals and to the elimination of institutional barriers, there are also other sociological, demographic, and psychological factors at work. According to psychotherapist Joel Crohn (1995), the decision to intermarry is not based on one single element—there may be many psychological influences operating. From his work as a therapist, he identifies four reasons that individuals from different religious, cultural, or ethnic backgrounds may be attracted to each other. First, stereotypes about a particular group may attract persons to each other; for example, black men are masculine, Jewish men are good providers, and Asian women are sexy.

Second, Crohn (1995) suggests that outmarriage can also be due to a partner’s struggle with his or her identity. Those who outmarry may find members of the opposite sex from their ethnic, racial, or religious group unappealing and unattractive. Marriage can then be the arena in which individuals deal with their ambivalent attitudes toward their racial, ethnic, or religious identity: ‘‘Marriage to an outsider represents the ultimate strategy in trying to erase the stigma of a minority identity’’ (Crohn 1995, p. 52). At the same time, minority groups may outmarry into the dominant group to gain acceptance by that group. According to Pang (1997), Asian-American women who choose relationships with white men ‘‘participate in a language of assimilation that minimizes essential core parts of their self’’ (Pang 1997, p. 295). She found that Asian-American women who outmarry do not place importance on their race or culture and rather take on the identity of their white husband. According to Pang (1997), assimilation and incorporation into white society for these Asian-American women was of importance.

Third, Crohn (1995) suggests that whites may feel like they lack a particular cultural tradition and thus be attracted to a partner with a certain cultural and ethnic distinctiveness. Crohn further suggests that intermarriage is also a way for adult children to separate themselves from their family emotionally and/or physically. In fact, other studies have documented that those who chose to intermarry were more rebellious and had huge conflicts with family due to objections to their marital choice (Sung 1990).

Fourth, Crohn discusses how attraction across religious, ethnic, or racial barriers may be grounded in cultural values and traditions, such as collectivism or individualism, that the individual is attracted to.

According to social exchange theory, relationships are exchanges of valued resources and involve an analysis of costs and benefits. Pierre Van den Berghe (1960) theorizes that racial or ethnic intermarriage is an instance of such an exchange, in this case that of hypergamy. Hypergamous means that women marry up in status; while hypogamous means that the racial and ethnic status of the husband is lower than that of his wife. In the past, most black men who married white women were of a higher social status than their wives. In fact, this marrying down was so common that sociologists formulated a theory about it, hypothesizing that the black groom was trading his class advantage for the racial caste advantage of the white bride (Davis 1941; Merton 1941). Kalmijn’s (1993) study of marriage license data from 33 states between 1968 and 1996 indicates that black/white intermarriages have been on the rise, most prominently between black males and white women. Kalmijn notes that these marriages involved white women and high-status black men, meaning that white women moved up in socioeconomic status.

Other factors may propel people into an interracial marriage. Some students of the subject assert that uneven sex ratios are a basic cause. Wherever a group near another group has an imbalance in sex ratio, there is a greater likelihood of intermarriage. If the groups have a relatively wellbalanced distribution of the sexes, members will marry more within their own group (Guttentag and Secord 1983; Parkman and Sawyer 1967).

As for the sociocultural factors that promote or deter interracial marriages, several explanations have been put forth to explain the variation in intermarriage patterns in the United States. Tucker and Mitchell-Kernan (1990) hypothesized that certain environments are more racially tolerant of intermarriage than are others. Their hypothesis is based on findings from U.S. census data showing that interracial marriage rates are highest in the West and lowest in the South (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1985). Similar to their explanation is the argument by Blau and Schwartz (1984) that the larger the group size as a proportion of the population, the less likely it is that members will marry outside their group. Second, they suggested that the more heterogeneous an area’s population, the more likely it is that people will marry outside their group. Both the aforementioned propositions imply that intermarriage is a function of environmental forces, not individual motivations.

In addition to the normal problems of working out a satisfactory marital relationship, interracial couples must cope with social ostracism and isolation. While the motivation for an interracial marriage may or may not differ from that of intraracial marriages, there are problems that are unique to interracial marriages. When researchers studied interracially married couples they discovered that courtship in most cases had been carried on clandestinely and, further, that many of them were isolated from their families following the marriage. Other outstanding social problems encountered by the couples centered on such factors as housing, occupation, and relationships with family and peers. Several of the spouses lost their jobs because of intermarriage, while others felt it necessary to conceal their marriages from their employers.

In addition to these strains, intermarried couples also face stressors within the family. Conflicts with in-laws contributed to marital instability (Chan and Smith 1995). Moreover, intermarried couples experienced not only the greatest conflict with inlaws but also differences that arose in terms of child rearing. According to Chan and Smith (1995), intermarried couples may face more problems because of their concerns with raising biracial children. They may worry about the children’s psychosocial development because of their mixed heritage. The children may look more black than white and ‘‘this may create more stress for the mother who is most likely to be the primary caretaker and have to deal with the prejudice others might have about her children’’ (Chan and Smith 1995, p. 383).

Further research needs to be done to investigate the factors involved in intermarriages, as well to assess marital stability and instability among intermarried couples. However, there are several data problems in conducting research on intermarriages. First, marriage data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHs) is incomplete, since not all states are required to submit data and only about forty states submit such information (Besharov and Sullivan 1996). Moreover, many states do not ask questions about race on marriage licenses. Currently, only thirtytwo states report race information to the NCHS (Besharov and Sullivan 1996). Even if data on race and ethnicity are available, the analysis is quite limited when conducting research on the secondgeneration intermarriage experience (Roy and Hamilton 1997). Moreover, data on interfaith marriage are also sparse, since the census and other government surveys rarely ask a respondent’s religion (Salins 1997). In addition, the General Social Survey, which collects information on attitudes toward intermarriages, is quite limited because only two questions are presented in this survey: ‘‘How do you feel about having a close relative or family member marry a Black person?’’ And ‘‘Do you think there should be laws against marriages between Blacks and Whites?’’ According to St. Jean (1998), these questions do not adequately address current attitudes on intermarriages. Rather, St. Jean (1998) suggests that qualitative research, such as focus groups, provide more insight and information than the existing quantitative research on the topic.


As barriers between different groups of people come down, intermarriage will continue to take place. This article has discussed the history and trends of black/white intermarriages, past and future directions of Asian-American intermarriages, trends in interfaith marriages, and factors involved in intermarriages. High intermarriage rates have been mostly among white ethnics (Salins 1997). Despite the increases in interracial marriage, black/ white intermarriages are still quite low compared to other interracial and interfaith marriages. Racist attitudes still persist. Of these various types of intermarriage, black/white intermarriage is still one that is fraught with controversy. Those who oppose it often combine a hostility toward racial equality with invidious assessments of the private thoughts and lives of interracial couples. Many men and women mate for no more complex reasons than meeting, liking each other as individuals, and choosing to transcend the societal barriers to their relationship. Only in societies similar to that of the United States does a biracial union take on any greater significance. For centuries, Latin American nations have undergone such a fusion of the races that only nationality, language, and religion remain as sources of identity. But the painful history of race relations in North America militates against the natural mixing of individuals from different races. Instead of regarding interracial dating and marriage as a matter of personal choice, many minorities have taken up the call for racial purity so common to their white supremacist adversaries of the past.

Despite the opposition to biracial unions, they will continue to increase as long as the social forces that set intermarriage in motion exist. There is, for example, the class factor. As long as middle-class blacks occupy token positions in the upper reaches of the job hierarchy, most of the people they meet in their occupational world will be white. Considering the fact that the job setting is the paramount place for meeting mates, it is only natural that many blacks will date and marry whites. Those whites will be the people they most often encounter and with whom they share common values, interests, and lifestyles. In the 1950s, E. Franklin Frazier (1957) predicted:

The increasing mobility of both white and colored people will not only provide a firsthand knowledge of each for the other but will encourage a certain cosmopolitanism. That means there will be a growing number of marginal people who will break away from their cultural roots. These marginal people will help create not only an international community but an international society. In becoming free from their local attachments and provincial outlook, they will lose at the same time their racial prejudices, which were a product of their isolation. Many of these marginal people will form interracial marriages because they are more likely to find suitable marriage partners in the cosmopolitan circles than within their native countries.

A careful reading of history indicates that the intermarriage rate often rises or fall for reasons related more to political and economic factors than individual desire. Within the developed world, the United States has the lowest rate of interracial marriage because it is the most racially diverse of all those nations. Due to a combination of economic factors, many white Americans feel less secure about the racial privileges they have long enjoyed and the impact intermarriage would have on their life chances and that of their children. The increasing presence of people of color and their competition for the best jobs, houses, incomes, and lifestyles heighten these insecurities. Increasingly, they are willing to turn back those challenges by racial scapegoating in the political arena, resulting in a number of reactionary voting patterns by the Anglo majority on affirmative action and immigrant issues, which largely affect African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino citizens. In defense of their right to participate equally in the political and economic life of the United States, people of color have forged movements of racial and ethnic solidarity to counter the white backlash.

However, racial divisions are doomed to eventual failure in large part because race itself is a social construct used more as an opiate or divisive strategy than for any other purpose. Just as religion is the divisive force in much of the world, racial differences serve to mask the underlying causes of class inequality in the United States. The political and economic elite have found it expedient to exploit minor differences in physical traits among groups to detract from public consciousness of the most pronounced case of economic inequality in the developed world. Only when economic justice becomes a social reality can we expect to see dating and marriage choices based on merit and not a group’s standing in the racial and class hierarchy.

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