Mixed-race marriages -- and tolerance -- soar
July 24, 2005
BY ANDREW HERRMANN Staff Reporter
Irene Carr's father was a minister, but he could not perform her marriage ceremony. He couldn't because it was illegal in the 1950s for interracial couples to wed in Missouri.
Irene is white; her now-deceased husband, Leon, a steelworker, was black. They eventually married in Chicago and reared three sons. When one told them he knew of no mom or dad like his, they helped start a support organization for biracial couples like themselves.
The number of mixed-race marriages has exploded over the last 30 years, growing from about 300,000 in 1970 to more than 3 million today, a new study by the Population Reference Bureau reports. In 1970, racial intermarriage was less than 1 percent of all married couples. In 2000, mixed couples accounted for 5.4 percent.
Yet Carr's Chicago-based Biracial Family Network has about 40 members -- fewer than half of its peak in the early 1980s. The drop reflects the increased acceptance -- and fewer hardships -- such couples face today, she says.
Then and now
Carr is now 75, but consider her experience as a young Elmhurst College student in the mid-'50s. She met her future husband, Leon, while working at a Walgreens on State Street. While they fell in love, he would not take her back to school after dates for fear of traveling in unfamiliar suburbs.
And when the couple would drive from Chicago to Missouri to visit her family, Leon insisted on motoring under the cloak of night. In Chicago, they mostly ate in restaurants in black neighborhoods. At white establishments, "he had a feeling people were looking at us," said Carr.
"He was very careful not to get into situations," said Carr. She and her husband settled in predominantly black Woodlawn because, she said, "that's where a black man married to a white woman could live."
Now consider Lee Christopher, an African American who lives on a cul-de-sac in predominantly white suburban Streamwood with his Caucasian wife, Cindy, and their two children.
Married for 13 years, they met at a dance club in Schaumburg about 20 years ago. At the time, he managed a Kmart; she was a beautician. Both had dated outside their race before.
That they were of different races "was no big deal,'' said Cindy, 42. "He was a cute guy who could dance and hold a nice conversation without using a lot of bad language. I was looking for someone who went to church and was respectful to women. It wasn't like I was looking for the darkest man I could find."
Remembers Lee, a 46-year-old accountant with United States Can Co.: "I saw this attractive person, and it all came together.''
In a 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 540 people in biracial couples were asked if their parents had problems when they first started dating outside their race. Twenty-eight percent said yes. For 15 percent, the objections continue.
Irene Carr's father was, at first, "uncomfortable" with his daughter becoming romantically involved with a black man, even though he had urged racial tolerance from his pulpit in Marthasville, Mo. "He was given a chance to practice what he preached," she said with a chuckle.
In the Christopher living room, pictures of their parents sit side by side on a table, a reflection of the support the couple received.
Lee Christopher, who grew up in a small town in Arkansas and suspects there have been white branches in his family tree, was simply told by his parents to "be careful." Cindy's parents made no mention of race. Her father had owned apartment buildings with black tenants, "so he was comfortable around all kinds of people," she said. "We weren't raised to use derogatory comments."
Later, the couple learned that one of Cindy's grandfathers had angrily vowed to "shut the whole thing down." He never made good on the threat and can be seen dancing in their wedding video.
Half of the biracial couples in the Kaiser poll said they have experienced at least "some" discrimination. In the 1980s, the Christophers sued a Schiller Park landlord who agreed to rent to Cindy -- then rescinded when he met Lee.
Twenty years later, "the times are changing," Lee said. So, when they end up at a bad table near the kitchen at a restaurant, Lee allows it's either racism -- or maybe just color-blind bad luck. Maybe people are quieter about their racial beliefs, now, he said. "It's a more polite society."
Lee Christopher has sensed a chill from some black women. "Statistically speaking, with so many African-American men in prison or out of work, [black women wanting to marry black men] have limited choices. I'm an African-American male with an MBA, so when they see me with her, there may be a little disconnect from women of color," he said.
Black female writers such as Terry McMillan and Bebe Moore Campbell have written about such resentments, called "marrying out."
A quarter of the biracial couples in the Kaiser poll said people stare at them at least "once in a while" -- and the Christophers say they do notice people looking at them. But they say it is unclear whether those people are telegraphing disapproval or whether they are actually looking at their children. Daughter Arielle, 6, competes in beauty pageants. Their son Brandon, 4, is a striking mix of bronze skin, blond hair and blue eyes. The couple also tend to dress up when going out, which draws attention, they say.
Sharon M. Lee and Barry Edmonston, co-authors of the Population Reference Bureau report "New Marriages, New Families: U.S. Racial and Hispanic Intermarriage" describe a growing, if not acceptance, at least tolerance for such couplings.
They cite University of Chicago polling data that show that in the 1970s, 35 percent of whites favored laws against black-white marriages. By 2000, that number had dropped to about 10 percent. Still, in one 2000 survey, about 38 percent of whites said they are opposed to intermarriage between blacks and whites.
Whether their parents approve or not, young people are increasingly dating outside their race. Four in 10 respondents in another Kaiser survey said they had dated someone of another color.
White men, Asian women
While black and white couplings are the stuff of most media portrayals -- from the 1967 film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" to the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead -- the most common interracial marriage combination is a white man and an Asian woman -- 14 percent of all interracial couples. That No. 1 ranking hasn't changed since 1970.
All are not intermarrying at the same rate. Black men are more than twice as likely as black women to intermarry -- a number "that has widened in recent years," the Reference Bureau authors write. In 2000, about 10 percent of black men were intermarried, compared with 4 percent of black women.
About 22 percent of Asian women were in interracial marriages in 2000; 10 percent of Asian men married outside their race.
Lee and Edmonston, both Portland State University professors, found that intermarried people are generally more highly educated. "Education is related to greater racial tolerance and acceptance,'' they said.
The increase in intermarriage was sparked by three developments in the late 1960s and early '70s: a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned laws that banned intermarriage, the large-scale immigration of people from Asia and Latin America, and the civil rights movement that challenged discrimination against minority groups. The numbers also reflect that Americans can make more choices in how they identify themselves in the census.
Intermarriage will continue to increase, partly because Americans are becoming more like each other, the bureau researchers say. The minority population is expanding, which will mean more Americans will be educated and work with people of different colors -- making the races "social equals" and leading to more friendships, including romantic.
Lee Christopher says pop culture is also playing a role, citing the black singer Seal's recent marriage to white fashion model Heidi Klum. "There are people in the media who have helped show, hey, this is OK," he said.
Biracial marriages have higher failure rates than same-race marriages, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After 10 years, 41 percent of interracial couples have either separated or divorced. Same-race marriages have a 31 percent failure rate after a decade.
Overall, biracial couples in the Kaiser poll say their marriages are no more difficult than same-race pairings. Two-thirds said it made "no difference"; about a quarter said it made it harder by "just a little."
"I would say as long as you're comfortable with who you are and who you're married to, I don't see a difference," said Cindy.
Added Lee: "You might work harder to show people you're normal, that you can be successful, that you do go to church, that you do love your family."
Of more concern these days to biracial couples is how their mixed-race children -- about 3.4million nationally -- will fit in. Carr recalls that when one of her sons attended Dartmouth, he began using "black dialect" to identify himself as black to other black students.
Lee is building a library of African-American books for his children. While they are mixed race, he wants them to know their black history.
Cindy says a boy playing with her children recently asked her "why my son had blue eyes and blond hair and my daughter doesn't.''
"I said, 'He looks more like me, she looks more like her father. Everyone comes in different colors.' The kid said, 'Fine,' and kept on playing," she said.