In 1958, three years before an interracial union produced Barack Obama, 4 percent of Americans told Gallup that they approved of interracial marriage. Like Obama, the U.S. has traveled a long, long way since then. Approval of interracial marriage hit 87 percent in Gallup’s 2013 survey.
A new Pew Research Center survey on interracial marriage released last week shows that attitudes aren’t all that’s changing. One in six American newlyweds is married to someone of a different race or ethnicity. But the demographics and geography of those marriages tell a more complicated story, one that in many respects mimics the irregular landscape of American politics.
Pew found that about half of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic say the increase in intermarriage is a good thing for society. Only 28 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agree.
Political scientists have long measured racial resentment. But attitudes about interracial marriage ought to be especially unencumbered by other factors. After all, no one is asking that interracial unions be publicly subsidized, or that mixed-race couples benefit from policies to compensate them for the history of social and governmental hostility. There are no distinct policy issues or public funds at stake -- just notions about tribalism, racial boundaries and the nature of American society and families.
The map of interracial marriage looks remarkably similar to a map of Hillary Clinton voters. If you reside in a major metropolitan area and have a college education, your chances of marrying someone of another race generally increase. Or you could just live in Southern California. In the Santa Barbara area, 30 percent of newlyweds are mixed-race. Away from the affluent coast, around Riverside and San Bernardino, one quarter of newlyweds are.
Nationally, about 18 percent of those living in a metro area are married to someone of a different race, compared with 11 percent who live outside a metro area. White newlyweds in metro areas are twice as likely -- 12 percent versus 6 percent -- to be married to someone of a different race or ethnicity as those in non-metro areas.
Rates of intermarriage for men and women of the same race can be starkly different. Asian women are far more likely to intermarry than Asian men; black men are far more likely to do so than black women. From the Pew survey report:
“For instance, while 11 percent of all intermarried couples involve a white man and an Asian woman, just 4 percent of couples include a white woman and an Asian man. And while about 7 percent of intermarried couples include a black man and a white woman, only 3 percent include a black woman and a white man.”
The disparities may be driven by the resilience of negative racial stereotypes of Asian men and black women. Such stereotypes, and the bigotry that shapes them, are fading but far from gone.
Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent election as president confirmed that white racial resentment, and unease over changing demographics, can be channeled to powerful effect. Among whites, 17 percent of Republicans and 8 percent of Democrats admit that they would oppose intermarriage in their own family. Given taboos on acknowledging racial hostility, those percentages could understate the degree of lingering intolerance.
Yet the trajectory of American society still seems more likely to lead toward a multicultural mashup than to a balkanized future of racial retrenchment. Among Americans ages 65 and older, 21 percent say they would be very or somewhat opposed to an intermarriage in their family. For Americans ages 18 to 29, however, that figure is only 5 percent.
Neither Obama nor Trump was an American anomaly; each represents a powerful strain of the nation’s cultural DNA. But despite the victory of Trump’s tribalism over Obama’s multiculturalism, the future still looks to be on Obama’s side.