The Nation: The Majority-Majority Future

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The bride is happy, but the groom not so much. A pew survey released last week found that the share of interracial and interethnic marriages has reached an all time high. i i

hide captionThe bride is happy, but the groom not so much. A pew survey released last week found that the share of interracial and interethnic marriages has reached an all time high.

Nuno Silva/iStockphoto.com
The bride is happy, but the groom not so much. A pew survey released last week found that the share of interracial and interethnic marriages has reached an all time high.

The bride is happy, but the groom not so much. A pew survey released last week found that the share of interracial and interethnic marriages has reached an all time high.

Nuno Silva/iStockphoto.com

Jamelle Bouie is a writer for The Nation.

A survey released last week from the Pew Research Center features fascinating new data on interracial relationships in the United States. According to Pew, the "share of new marriages between spouses of a different race or ethnicity increased to 15.1 percent in 2010, and the share of all current marriages that are either interracial or interethnic has reached an all-time high of 8.4 percent."

At the same time, public acceptance — and support for — interracial marriages has continued to grow. 43 percent of Americans say that the increase in interracial marriages has been a change for the better in our society, compared to the 10 percent who disagree.

As for the marriages themselves, the picture is a little different than what you would expect. Asian-Americans have the highest intermarriage rate, at 27.7 percent, followed by Hispanics (25.7 percent), African-Americans (17.1 percent) and whites (9.4 percent). 43.3 percent of all intermarriages in 2010 were Hispanic/white, making that the most common pairing. "Other mixed" took second place 30.4 percent, followed by white/Asian — which were 14.4 percent of all pairings — and white/black, which were 11.9 percent of all intermarriages.

It's a common enough belief among liberals that demographic changes will give them a built-in advantage in national elections. The Latinoization of the Southwest — and the nation's growing Asian population — is said to herald an age where liberals can build majority political coalitions in states that were once conservative strongholds. But race and ethnicity are very fluid, and even with the growing population fo Asians and Latinos, it's not at all clear that the United States is on a straight path to majority-minority status.

This is where intermarriage rates are important. Of the children produced by Hispanic/white or Asian/white pairings, how many will be considered Asian or Hispanic, and how many will be seen as simply white? Far from becoming a country where a majority of the population belongs to a racial minority, it's entirely possible that the United States becomes a country where "white ethnics" include people with Latino or Asian heritage, as well as people of Irish or Italian descent.

Of course, the American racial landscape goes beyond white/black/Latino/Asian. Which is why it's important to understand the extent to which the racial divide is non-black/black, rather than black/white. On every measure — from income and education to housing and health — the distance between blacks and everyone else is large and enduring. And upwardly mobile immigrant groups have always defined themselves in opposition the descendants of slaves as part of the effort to enter the American mainstream. This is a lot less straightforward in practice; sometimes, political circumstances force an immigrant group to define itself in terms of its ethnic identity, which can have lasting effects. We saw this with Irish Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and we're seeing it unfold with Latinos.

Even still, if this dynamic continues into the twenty-first century — and the current pattern of intermarriage suggests that it will — then we'll find ourselves in a familiar place. Some immigrants will "become" white, and others won't, but — as always — everyone will define themselves in contrast to African-Americans.

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