Friday, September 16, 2011

Multi-ethnic marriages in the South: a racy matter?

While catching up with an old friend recently over coffee, the conversation eventually turned to the topic of her sudden break up with her boyfriend. She would have been dating him for five years now, had the relationship continued. The end of the relationship, she admitted, was rather expected, seeing as they "could never have gotten married anyway, with the whole interracial thing and all."

She is of English and Dutch descent, and grew up on a farm in Tennessee before moving to California for college. His family is originally from Bolivia, and he was born and raised in Massachusetts. They met in college, began dating, and the rest was history.

That is, until after a visit home one Thanksgiving, when her parents revealed misgivings about the relationship on account of his ethnicity. It wasn't so much that they didn't approve of his ethnicity, she explained, as they were concerned about the hostile treatment directed towards them should the two of them get married. As the story goes, the relationship ultimately ended over these racism issues.

In this day and age, where we pride ourselves on the advanced progress of our society and it's forward thinking, this might be surprising. In fact, it wasn't until 1967, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in
Loving v. Virginia , that anti-miscegenation laws were finally held unconstitutional. It is an unsettling notion, but a quiet reminder that erasing the laws from the books does not mean that with it, all racism would also disappear.

In a New York Times
article written as part of a series exploring mixed-raced Americans, the message was more optimistic. It reported an increasing number of interracial couples in the deep South and a shift away from the notion that such relationships were taboo. Specifically, a 2010 census, reports a trend of increasing mixed-race populations in the South and in parts of the Midwest, exceeding demographer estimations.

One sociologist and demographer, William H. Frey, considers any mixed-race population increases were impressive when it comprises over 50 percent of the total population:

The fact that even states like Mississippi were able to see a large explosion of residents identifying as both black and white tells us something that people would not have predicted 10 or 20 years ago.
Additionally, the increases are not simply due to increased travel or immigration. Mississippi, for example, has not witnessed much of an increase in overall population over the decade, growing by only 3.8 percent since 2000. According to the American Community Survey, however, in the last decade Mississippi has had the highest growth of mixed marriages. What this suggests, demographers predict, is that the increase in interracial marriages are real, and not simply due to newcomers into the state.

But are the numbers in fact accurate? Some demographers and sociologists attribute the increasing number of interracial marriages in the South to "shifting images" and changing attitudes towards diversity. Professor Matthew Snip brings up an additional explanation of the dramatic increase in numbers -- reporting accuracy:

People have had an entire decade to think about this since it was first a choice in 2000. Some of these figures are not so much changes as corrections. In a sense, they’re rendering a more accurate portrait of their racial heritage that in the past would have been suppressed.
Yet another reason attributed to the change is the location of areas increasing in interracial couples. In Mississippi, for example, the increases are highest in port towns, usually along coast lines, which is considered more liberal than the rural areas. Additionally, the "most common mix is black and white -- historically and today the two groups least likely to intermarry" due to social and economic distance between them.

In states like California, there was not as high of an increase in interracial population reported, but this is because a significant amount of the total population is already comprised of mixed race people. Similarly, Hawaii has the highest mixed-race population at 23 percent, predominantly a mix of Asian and white and native Hawaiian. To many interracial couples, whether a diverse population exists is determinative of where they choose to settle down and raise their families. In Mississippi, many of these couples complain of "enduring racial inequities."

Part of the difficulty in assessing the numbers is the lack of statistics. It wasn't until 2000 that the first comprehensive accounting of interracial demographic data were reported and made public. In the meantime, however, what has been reported indicates a surprising leap in interracial couples in the South. If indeed this reflects a shifting perception away from historical racism, it takes us one step closer to the world Richard and Mildred Loving sought -- a world where one can love freely.


Patricija said...

I admit, I'm not good with statistics. However, if you looked at the statistics of the south, how could you separate acceptance of interracial relationship statistics of rural areas which have small, pretty homogenous populations and cities with large, more diverse populations. As someone who is in an interracial marriage, I always have hope that the stigma will vanish one day. However, I have doubts that this the case in certain rural towns, especially those that are predominately white with minorities serving as the main source of manual labor.

Namora said...

I think it would be interesting to study as well whether interracial marriage in rural areas is also divided by class lines. Perhaps races are more likely to mix and, thus, marry, in poorer areas while the rich are more likely to adhere to old cultural stigmas. Or, perhaps, the more educated are less likely to adhere to old cultural stigmas. Any data on this?

JT said...

Unfortunately, one of the problems is the lack of data out there. Up until considerably recently, there has been minimal attention towards interracial marriages, and part of the difficulty in assessing the data is the lack of honest responses. In recent surveys, many self-identification responses were switched. People might not be as forthcoming about their different ethnic backgrounds for fear of negative responses. But, I agree with you -- it'd be helpful to conduct a study along class lines.

JLS said...

I also agree that it would be interesting to look at what part socio-economic status plays. It seems like background and education often play as big a roll as anything else.

I am interested in the idea that urban areas or areas with more diverse populations are a more welcoming environment for interracial couples than rural, homogenous areas. I'm not sure I think that people in diverse, urban areas are automatically more accepting. Instead, it seems likely that when drawing from a larger population pool, couples are able to find more tolerant friends and coworkers.

Jason said...

Could another possible reason for the increased number of interacial marriages be the internet? Many rural places have limited diversity with no chance of meeting someone of a different race/ethnicity face to face. With the internet and social media, people can reach much farther out of their communities to meet new people.

I know several people who have met online and eventually married that are interacial couples. My brother in law met his wife online. She grew up and lived in Peru. After lots of talking over the phone and many trips back and forth they decided to get married.

I agree that there exists a certain stigma with interacial marriages, but I think the majority of the time it may have more to do with options.

Anonymous said...

Truth is, Mississippi doesn't have much interracial couples like any Deep South state, not unless you live in the Gulf Coast.