(September 2013) The persistent separation of racial groups across U.S. neighborhoods has lessened slightly due to mixed-race marriages, according to researchers at Pennylvania State University and the University of Washington. But residential patterns differ depending on the racial makeup of the couple.

Residential Segregation Declining

Overall, residential segregation—neighborhood separation of whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics—has been consistently but slowly declining since 1980. African Americans remain the most highly segregated group, although rapidly growing Hispanic populations are creating larger and more-concentrated ethnic enclaves in some major cities such as Seattle, Portland, Ore., Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C.1

Neighborhood integration of racial and ethnic groups is an indicator of assimilation—how well the social, economic, cultural, and residential patterns of the minority group merge with the patterns of the larger group.

Researchers have hypothesized that racial and ethnic residential segregation may lessen in the wake of more mixed-race marriages.

Wider Social Networks, More Marriagable Partners

Civil rights legislation, including affirmative action, has increased contact between different racial and ethnic groups. Social networks have also expanded thanks to technology such as social media as well as increased labor-force participation by women in more racially integrated workplaces.

These broader interactions have resulted in more mixed-race relationships, including marriages. According to the Pew Research Center, about 8 percent of U.S. marriages are interracial—representing one in every 12 marriages and a consistent upward trend since 1980, when only 3 percent of marriages were interracial.2

These mixed marriages fuel assimilation. As Daniel Lichter of Cornell University, explained: " … I often think of interracial marriage as the spoon that stirs the 'melting pot'. For example, interracial couples bridge the family and social networks of each partner."3

As the melting pot expands social networks, "spatial assimilation theory" would suggest that racial and ethnic neighborhood separation would also decline: People become less confined to segregated neighborhoods.

Does Spatial Assimilation Follow Marriage Assimilation?

University of Washington researcher Mark Ellis and colleagues used census data to examine the prevalence of mixed-race marriages compared to neighborhood racial and ethnic composition in 12 major U.S. cities. Their analysis revealed that the growing number of mixed-race households has, indeed, resulted in lower overall segregation levels. Black-white couples represent an important component of progress in the residential integration of African Americans. On the other hand, an increased percentage of Latinos living in Latino-only households resulted in more segregation among this specific ethnic group.4

Focusing on immigrant populations, Penn State researcher John Iceland and colleagues have found that couples with one foreign-born spouse are more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods and away from ethnic enclaves. Asian and Hispanics with U.S.-born white spouses are much less segregated from U.S.-born white households.5

Although complicated by cultural, economic, and political realities, mixed-race couples may be able to exert a real influence toward a more-integrated culture.

Lori M. Hunter is an associate professor of sociology, Institute of Behavioral Science, Programs on Population, Environment and Society, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is also editor-in-chief of Population and Environment. This article is part of PRB's CPIPR project, funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Hunter is liaison from the University of Colorado's Population Center to CPIPR. Other NICHD-funded researchers who are highlighted in this article are John Iceland and colleagues of Pennsylvania State University's Population Research Institute, Mark Ellis and colleagues at the University of Washington's Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology, John Logan and colleagues at Brown University's Population Studies and Training Center, and Daniel Lichter of the Cornell Population Center at Cornell University.


  1. John R. Logan and Brian Stults, "The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis: New Findings From the 2010 Census" (2011), accessed at www.s4.brown.edu/us2010,  on Sept. 20, 2013.
  2. Wendy Wang, The Rise of Intermarriage (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2010), accessed at www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/02/16/the-rise-of-intermarriage/,  on Sept. 20, 2013.
  3. Daniel Lichter, "Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage in the United States," PRB Discuss Online, May 20, 2010, accessed at www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2010/discussionmay22010.aspx,  on Sept. 20, 2013.
  4. Mark Ellis et al., "Agents of Change: Mixed-Race Households and the Dynamics of Neighborhood Segregation in the United States," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102, no. 3 (2012): 549-70.
  5. John Iceland and Kyle Anne Nelson, "The Residential Segregation of Mixed-Nativity Married Couples," Demography 49, no. 4 (2010): 869-93.