Intraracial Marriages On The Rise

A new study indicates an increasing number of people are choosing to marry within their own race, while mixed-race unions are on the decline. Daniel Lichter, a professor of sociology at Cornell University and co-author of the study discusses his findings and what may be contributing to the uptick in intraracial marriages.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We often speak of this country as a melting pot. Now, of course, some people prefer the salad bowl metaphor, but you get the idea. Cultures mix with other cultures, traditions blend, sometimes they transform.

Daniel Lichter of Cornell University describes intermarriages when, say, an Asian-American marries a Latino or when an African-American marries a Caucasian, as the spoon with which to stir the melting pot that is U.S. culture.

But in new research, he has found that the number of intra-marriages, say, Hispanics marrying Hispanics or Asians marrying Asians, is what's actually on the rise in this country.

Lichter is one of the co-authors of a study called "Immigration and Intermarriage: Crossing Racial, Generational Boundaries Among Hispanics." He's with us now from Cornell. Professor Lichter, thank you for joining us.

Professor DANIEL LICHTER (Cornell University): Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: Now, we keep talking about stews and salads, so you'll forgive me if I say, let's set the table. You note that the number of interracial and interethnic marriages does continue to increase. I think that's something that a lot of people have a sense of.

For example, in 2008, eight percent of all couples in the U.S. belonged to distinct ethnic groups, and that figure is 10 percent in California and Texas. But you say that the number of intra-marriages is actually on the increase as well, among Hispanics and Asians. Why do you think that is?

Prof. LICHTER: Well, there's been a lot of interest recently in the rise in intermarriage, but if you look at the statistical evidence, most of the increase is among blacks and whites, that is, marriages between blacks and whites. If you look at Asian-white marriages or Hispanic-white marriages, they've actually declined slightly since 1980 or so. And I think a big part of the explanation has to with the massive immigration of Hispanics from both Mexico and other parts of Latin America, as well as Asians.

But immigration not only fuels the population or the size of the population that's available for native-born Asians or Hispanics to marry, but I think it also serves to replenish culture and shared ethnicity, shared ancestral identity and so on. So I think there's, in some sense, a return to one's origins here.

So the increasingly likelihood of native-born Asians or Hispanics to marry back to the immigrant population, rather than marrying second or third generation Asians or Hispanics or marry out to whites.

MARTIN: Do we have any sense of whether this intra-ethnic phenomenon is as a function of education or length of time here? I mean, it seems logical that someone whose family has been here longer would be more inclined to...

Prof. LICHTER: Well, if you look...

MARTIN: ...you know, marry outside one's own ethnic group.

Prof. LICHTER: If you look at the evidence, you'd compare a first generation, that is the immigrants, with second generation, third generation and so on -each successive generation there tends to be more out-marriage to whites. That's still true today. And we also know that as education increases generally among the Asian and Hispanic population, there's also a greater likelihood of out-marriage to whites.

Where that's not the case is among the African-American population where levels of education seem to be largely unrelated. Although, there's some evidence that that is even changing now. So, in the case of African-Americans, race appears to trump education.

MARTIN: Now, you say, though, that data indicates that black men are far more likely to marry outside the race than black women are. That 22 percent of black men who marry, marry non-black women, but only nine percent of black women marry non-black men. Does that pattern hold true for other ethnic groups? And is this new?

Prof. LICHTER: Well, this has been going on a long time. Maybe 75 percent of marriages that involve blacks and whites involve a black man and a white woman. So the patterns of out-marriage, perhaps lower than any other group among African-American women. So, they have very low rates of out-marriage to whites. The situation is exactly the opposite of that in both Asians and Hispanic women, where they tend to be more likely than Asian or Hispanic men to out-marry to whites.

And I think some of it has to do with cultural definitions of beauty and being exotic and so on. But a lot of that is anecdotal evidence rather than supported by any kind of empirical evidence.

MARTIN: So we really just don't know why that is. I mean, we can speculate, but we're really not sure.

Prof. LICHTER: Well, I think we can speculate...

MARTIN: I guess what I'm asking, is there any other ethnic group in which there's such a disparity in gender?

Prof. LICHTER: Well, we also see a lot of gender asymmetry among Asians and whites. That is, we see an awful lot of Asian women who are out-marrying to whites, much higher percentage than Asian men out-marrying to whites.

MARTIN: What do we think of all this? It used to be that interracial or interethnic marriage was the stuff of, you know, it was explosive. It was a hugely explosive issue. You know, you're thinking about kind of the racist imagery around - I'm thinking of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" that depicted, you know, black men, like, lusting after white women and the counter push on that.

Prof. LICHTER: Right.

MARTIN: And all of this cultural anxiety around it. And I'm just wondering, you know, what does this say now?

Prof. LICHTER: Well, I think we have a very polarized public dialogue about the issue of interracial marriage. I think on one hand you have a group that I think is growing, that is celebrating this new pattern of intermarriage and growing intermarriage among different groups. They see it as evidence of a post-racial society that race doesn't matter so much when we make decisions about the most intimate aspects of our lives.

On the other hand, I think there's probably another group that's growing just as fast that worries that, you know, the sort of American white identity and America's essential character is changing as a result of the sort of mixing of races and the growth of mixed race children and so on. So I think there's a polarization today in the current discussion of race.

MARTIN: What else would you like to know as a researcher on this topic? This is obviously a - you have a large body of work in this area. So what else are you interested in?

Prof. LICHTER: One of the questions is, is whether some of the new immigrant groups in the United States, some of the Hispanic groups, some of the Asian groups, whether they're forming a new kind of pan-ethnicity. Whether Japanese-Americans or Chinese-Americans or Americans from India and so on are intermarrying and there's sort of a pan-Asian kind of racial and ethnic identity that's emerging from those kinds of marriages.

I always see intermarriage as sort of the final step of the assimilation process in some way. I don't mean assimilation where you meld into the dominant U.S. society. But I mean assimilation in the sense that we share certain values and so on and people interact with each other as equals.

MARTIN: Daniel Lichter is a professor of sociology at Cornell University. He is one of the authors of the recent study "Immigration and Intermarriage: Crossing Racial and Generational Boundaries Among Hispanics." He was kind enough to join us from the studios at Cornell University. Professor Lichter, thank you for speaking with us.

Prof. LICHTER: Thank you for having me.

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