PRB Discuss Online: Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage in the United States

May 20, 2010 1 PM EST

Transcript of Questions and Answers

Ezer R. May May:

1.- What is the type of intermarriage that get (has) the major trends in the United States?

2.- Why this type has the major trends?

3.- What are the social conditions that produce it?

4.- What(or Which) is the importance of the religion in these intermarriages?


Daniel T. Lichter: My good colleague and long-time collaborator, Zhenchao Qian (Ohio State University), and I have been studying interracial marriage among different immigrant groups. Like others, we view intermarriage with whites as a “final step” in the assimilation process. For Asians and Hispanics, we have found that intermarriage rates with whites have slowed downed and even reversed in some instances. The massive influx of new immigrants has expanded the pool of potential marriage partners and revitalized ancestral and ethno-racial identities. The current “retreat from intermarriage” suggests a pause in the process of immigrant assimilation in the United States. Obviously, there are many other important trends (e.g., growth of black-white intermarriage and the shift toward more pan-ethnic marriages) that I cannot attend to in the short space here. For an excellent overview of trends, see: Sharon M. Lee and Barry Edmonston, “New Marriages, New Families: Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage,” Population Bulletin 60, no. 2 (2005).

Donghui Yu: Could you please tell us some features of Asian American(partucularly Chinese American)’s intermarriage with other race? Thanks.

Daniel T. Lichter: Asian women have among the highest rates of interracial marriage in the United States. My colleague, Yujun Wang, has shown with the 2007 American Coummunity Survey that roughly 55 percent of U.S. born Asian women (aged 18-34) married non-Asians, mostly white men. That’s a lot of out-marriage. Compared with Asian women, Asian men have much lower rates of marriage to whites or other races. My Asian male students sometimes complain that white guys are dating Asian women, but that white women seem uninterested in them. There is lots of debate about why this is the case, and the empirical evidence is too weak to draw strong conclusions. Antecdotal explanations sometimes emphasize cultural definitions of masculinity (e.g., shorter height of Asian men) or gender roles (e.g., perceptions that Asian men may hold patriarchal gender role attitudes). We just don’t have enough hard data on these sorts of questions, which deal with highly sensitive issues that often strike a nerve. To your last question, Chinese Americans overall have higher rates of outmarriage to whites than some other Asian groups (e.g., Asian Indians or Vietnamese). This probably reflects that fact that they have been in the U.S. for many generations (and a large percentage share common cultural traits of the majority white population, including language). But among recent Chinese immigrants—the first generation—rates of intermarriage are much lower and perhaps lower than in the past. Some of this seems to reflect the recent influx of Chinese with lower education levels from new sending areas(e.g., from Fujian province).

Chinyere Osuji: Does interracial marriage really demonstrate a blurring of racial boundaries? If so, in what ways can we see this happening? Does this impact the lives of black-white couples? If so, in what ways?

Daniel T. Lichter: From my perspective, the growth of interracial marriages has definitely blurred racial boundaries in the U.S. In fact, 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. They span racial boundaries by interacting on both sides of the racial divide and, more importantly, they bring other friends and family members with them. Of course, this assumes that both sides of the racial divide accept the interracial couple, which isn’t always the case. Also, the mixed race children of interracial couples, by definition, blur the racial line. These children are more likely than single race children to have cross-racial friends and to marry interracially themselves. Most children of black-white couples, however, are still likely to identify themselves as black or African American rather than as mixed-race or some other racial label. President Obama identified himself as black on the 2010 decennial census, even though his mother was white and his father was black.

Amy Steinbugler: Since the 2000 Census, researchers have the ability to examine trends in same-sex relationships through the category “Unmarried Partner Households.” What can you tell us about patterns of racial and ethnic intermarriage among same-sex (cohabitating) partners?

Daniel T. Lichter: Data from the 2008 American Community Survey showed that about 6 percent of all married couples were interracial, compared with about 12 percent among same-sex couples. Gay men have slightly higher rates of interracial coupling than do lesbians. Of course, these are crude numbers that don’t tell us much about why these differences exist (e.g., same-sex couples are younger and better educated, which may account for some of the difference from married couples). Gary Gates (UCLA), Michael Rosenfeld (Stanford), and Christine Schwartz (Wisconsin-Madison), among others, have done some recent work on this issue, using Census data. This is a big topic. I’d encourage you to Google them or check them out at ISI.

Andrew Rollings: Interracial seems very acceptable amongst today’s high school and college students (at least in the NE USA) but past evidence seems to show that when a cohort passes into its post-school years and starts making marriage decisions, the racial lines harden and the same people who accepted interracial dating now won’t enter into interracial marriages. Is this true? Do you think the Millenium generation will be significantly different? Do you see any evidence of increasing inter-ethnic marriages between white ethnics and Hispanics? In other words, any evidence that Hispanics are beginning to get to the stage of intimate assimilation?

Daniel T. Lichter: As I mentioned in a previous answer, interracial dating and sexual intimacy is more common than interracial marriage. Apparently in preparation for marriage, interracial dating also declines with age. There is a kind of “winnowing” of potential marital partners. Any increases in the number of Hispanic-white intermarriage over the past decade or two largely reflects the massive growth of the U.S. Hispanic population. However, Hispanic immigrants in general have very low rates of intermarriage with non-Hispanic whites or other racial groups. This reflects low levels of education, language difficulties, and little social interaction with whites (e.g., in the same neighborhods or work settings). By the third generation (native-born of native-born parents), however, intermarriage rates with whites are much higher. This seems to reflect cultural and structural incorporation.

Dr. Anima Sharma: Dear Dr. Lichter, The topic of the discussion is … in the context of the US but this is a universal process going on almost all the societies …. Whether we call it race (biological classification), ethnic groups (bio-social classification) castes (social classification as in India), or class (socioeconomic classification) or any other term … it indicates … segregation, using differing parameters. These parameters are often defied by the people who think beyond these materialistic or physical boundaries … Crossing over the boundaries many times leads to the conflict among the groups and sometimes …[to] honour killing, group fighting etc. …. Sometimes people accept such marriages with a pinch of salt and in few cases they take it normally. These are the social implications, but the biological consequences of such marriages create another situation in which there are so many new racial groups are emerging that it is difficult to name all of them and it affects the genetic pool too. In this scenario, do you think it is still relevant to use the terms like race, class, caste and ethnic groups? Is purity of any of these groups is not questionable?

Daniel T. Lichter: Most sociologists today view race as a social construction. So your central point is well-taken. In fact, most survey research measures race and ethnicity by self-identification. Respondents, not researchers or the government, classify themselves racially. Official statistics on race are not determined on the basis of phenotype or subjective labels made by researchers. Moreover, we know that racial identification can be very fluid; people’s self-identification can change over time and it can be situational (i.e., they define or represent themselves differently in different social settings). Interracial couples may even label their children differently depending on who fills out the survey or census. Clearly, there is a large subjective element to racial classification. But, as a sociologist, this fact is what makes it interesting to study.

John M Reid: does the rate of racial and ethnic intermarriage correlate with the rate of immigration? Does any reduction in the rate of intermarriage simply reflect a general reduction in marriage as opposed to de facto relationships?

Daniel T. Lichter: My work with Zhenchao Qian shows that intermarriage rates between Hispanics and whites and between Asians and whites have declined over the past two decades. A large part of the decline is, in fact, located in the growing supply of potential marriage partners resulting from new immigration of co-ethnics. The decline in intermarriage is not due to declines in marriage generally, however. Among those who marry, a declining share of Hispanics and Asians seem to be “marrying out” to other racial and ethnic groups.

Sanjay Mishra: What are push factors for the interracial marriages …? And, What are the success indiactors of … such marriages? …

Daniel T. Lichter: Most social scientists think that the rise in interracial marriages reflects: (1) changing preferences to marry outside one’s group or not (e.g., more racial tolerance), (2) the growing availability of potential partners of another group (i.e., the diversity of marriage markets), and (3) the declining influences of other people or institutions (i.e., changing norms or laws that prohibit or discourage intermarriage). The influence of preferences is the hardest thing to estimate, in my opinion. Cynthia Feliciano and her colleagues have measured this directly by looking at an on-line dating site, where enrollees can indicate their receptivity to dating persons of another race. She finds that white men are more likely to exclude blacks as possible dates, while white women exclude Asians. These preferences are consistent with observed intermarriage rates for these specific partner combinations. Most previous work emphasizes changing structural opportunities to intermarry which come about with increasing education, better jobs and incomes, declining racial residential segregation. In general, the more that minorities are similar to whites in education, socioeconomic status, and residence, the more likely they are to marry them. The only exception is among blacks, where higher levels of education have been largely unrelated to marriage to whites. For blacks, race trumps education. Most studies show that interracial couples tend to have higher rates of divorce than same-race couples. One exception is a recent paper by Yuanting Zhang and Jennifer Van Hook (“Marital Dissolution Among Interracial Couples,” Journal of Marriage and Family Volume 71(February 2009):95-107. They tell a more nuanced story by comparing black-white couples separately to white couples and black couples, rather than to all same-race couples.

Issa Almasarweh: I accept the argument that inter-ethnic-racial marriage is an empirical evidence of tolerance and coexistence among different groups. However, increases in such marriages can be the result of population growth including the increase in the size of minorities. Nevertheless, my question is: Why [do] Muslim minorities in Europe and USA reject such marriages? Or [they] ask the spouse to convert to Islam before they accept the intention of their daughters to marry to Non-Muslim men …

Daniel T. Lichter: Most people get married to someone within their own faith community. Muslims marry other Muslims. Catholics marry other Catholics. Jews marry other Jews. Protestants marry other Protestants. And so on. This may partly reflect lessons from sacred scripture. But is also reflects the fact that people marry other people who share their values and lifestyles, and religion is important in this regard. Devoutly religious people also share the same social circles, so the opportunties to meet and marry someone with the same religious background are obviously much greater than meeting and marrying someone of another religious faith. My main point: There is nothing especially exceptional about the Muslim case, except perhaps that Muslims (unlike Christians) are a new immigrant group (and therefore less incorporated into American society) which also reduces the likelihood of intermarriage. The key, obviously, will to observe over the next generation or two what happens when today’s Muslim children grow up and marry. A good source of information on inter-faith marriage is: Darren E. Sherkat. 2004. “Religious intermarriage in the United States: trends, patterns, and predictors.” Social Science Research 33:606-625.

Emeka Nwosu, Nigeria: Has racial and ethnic intermarriage led to a reduction in violence against negros, hispanics and asians. Am asking this question because in my country communities where this exist it has led to a reduction in friction between this ethnic groups

Daniel T. Lichter: I know of no specific research on this topic, but you have raised a very good question. My own view is that increases in intermarriage and declines in ethnic violence are probably more the result of other large scale changes in society, i.e., more education, less inequality between groups, etc., rather than reflect a cause-effect relationship. At the same time, intermarriage both reflects and reinforces the breakdown of racial and ethnic boundaries in society, and promotes more harmonious race relations. The so-called “contact hypothesis” in psychology argues that mutual understanding between groups is increased by contact rather than separation. Robert Putnam talks about issues of diversity and tolerance in his 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture. See: Putnam, D. Robert. 2007. “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century.” Scandinavian Political Studies 30: 137-174.

Norman R. Yetman: One of the striking recent trends has been the increase in children born to unmarried mothers–among women of all races. To what extent are these children “interracial”? In other words, how significant is “marriage” as an index of intimate relationships within and across racial categories?

Daniel T. Lichter: Obviously, the narrow focus on interacial marriage is an incomplete indicator of the extent of social distance between groups. Other kinds of relationships also provide clues about racial boundaries (e.g., residential segregation). In general, a higher percentage of sexually intimate dating relationships than marital relationships are interracial. Also, interracial couples also comprise a larger percentage of cohabiting than married couples. Joyner and Kao have also shown that interracial dating tends to decline with age – there is much more experimentation at younger ages than at older ages when they begin to look for lifelong marital partners. There is not a big literature on fertility among interracial married couples, and even fewer studies on fertility among interracial unmarried couples. The best recent paper I’ve seen on this topic is by Vincent Fu, a 2008 paper in the Journal of Marriage and the Family.

Debru G. Beyene: 1)What do you think is the factor or factors that favor racial and ethnic intermarriage here in the USA apart from love for one another? 2)Did socio-economic status [break] the barrier where race and ethnicity was an obstacle for … intermarriage?

Daniel T. Lichter: We haven’t even talked yet about love! As I’ve mentioned in my other answers, interracial marriage reflects individual preferences (and racial tolerance generally), opportunities to meet someone of another race, and informal restrictions on intermarriage (e.g., lack of support from family and friends, religious prohibitations, etc.). All of these have moved in ways that would seemingly result in more racial intermarraige in the United States. In general, intermarriage increases with levels of education. The most highly educated minorities are most likely to marry whites. They may be “attractive” in the marriage market, but the level of education may also be an indicator of cultural assimilation and other valued qualities in a mate (e.g., hardworking, responsible, etc.). This relationship between education and intermarriage is weakest among African Americans.

Victoria Reyes: How many interracial marriages are between first generation immigrants and native-born Americans?

Daniel T. Lichter: My work with Zhenchao Qian shows that less than 5 percent of first generation Hispanics are married to non-Hispanics. The numbers are a bit higher among Asian immigrants (mostly because of their much higher levels of education). These numbers, however, tells us something about the low level of integration or incorporation among new immigrants in American society. The percentages, however, are higher among immigrants from Europe. Shared race with the majority white population encourages more such marriages.

Debbie: Do you believe the current “pause”, that you express, in the rate of intermarriage has anything to do with the current economic or imigration climate?

Daniel T. Lichter: It’s hard to know the answer to this question, athough this is a good hypothesis. I am concerned that immigrants in America have “turned inward” since 9/11. There has been a backlash against immigrants and a new fear that our entire economic system and culture will crumble from the immigrant onslaught. The new anti-immigrant sentiment in America could be responsible for some of the decline in intermarriage and for a slowdown of the “Americanization” process, which, ironically is the very thing that some Americans fear the most (i.e. if immigrants turn against America). The economic recession, on the other hand, has led to a decline in the number of new immigrants into the United States. Some recent immigrants also are now returning to Mexico and to the countries from which they originated. It is highly unlikely that these returning immigrants are married to native-born Americans. Return migration may be leaving behind a disproportionate share of intermarried immigrants. But this is just speculation.

Chi Ibe: Dr Lichter, Has there been any study measuring the association between length of time in the US and liklihood of inter-marriage?

Daniel T. Lichter: It is hard to separate cause and effect when looking at the connection between intermarriage and length of residence in the United States. Clearly, length residence increases the likelihood of meeting and marrying someone of another race. But it is also true that the foreign-born are more likely to stay indefinitely in the United States (especially if visa restrictions are removed) if they have become married to a U.S. citizen. As a result, most scholars compare intermarriage rates across immigrant generations rather than by how long someone has been in the country. For virtually every racial group, intermarriage rates increase with immigrant generation. This simply means that intermarriage rates are lowest among new immigrants and highest among the native-born children of native-born parents (i.e., 3rd generation). The native-born children of foreign-born parents (2nd generation) occupy an intermediate position with respect to intermarriage.

Chi Ibe: I am curious to why you use the word assimilation. In my understanding assimilation is a negative process where an immigrant completely takes on the culture of the host country and have little or no desire for affiliation with his/her native culture. I think acculturation should be a better process. I also think that inter -marriage will does not necessarily show assimilation but tolerance – maybe a study on the quality and cultural orientation of inter-racial couples would throw some light into whether they are assimilated or well acculturated.

Daniel T. Lichter: Assimilation is sometimes seen as a value-laden term, but it is making a comeback in the scholarly literature. It no longer has the negative connotation of cultural genocide or the aborption of the minority culture into the majority culture. Today, most immigration scholars recognize that the assimilation process is not unilinear or asymmetrical, that immigrants also influence the culture of the native or majority population. I see intermarriage as a measure of social distance—the lack of it. This reflects tolerance, of course, but much much more.

Ariana Curtis: Dr. Lichter, have you found any differences in patterns of intermarriage between African-Americans and immigrant Blacks (African, Caribbean, Latin American)?

Daniel T. Lichter: Yes, my work with Christine Batson and Zhenchao Qian addressed this question in a 2006 article in the Journal of Marriage and Family. We found that marriages between different black populations (e.g., African-American with West Indian, say) were very low. The social distance between different black populations in America is seemingly great. Moreover, despite exceptionally high levels of education among black African immigrants, they have extremely low rates of marriage with whites. There has been lots of recent work (e.g., Mary Waters, among others) concerned with how some black immigrant groups (Dominicans, for example)attempt to “distance” themselves from native-born African Americans. We arguably also see this among the new African immigrants, who keep their African names, perhaps as a signal that they come from somewhere else and shouldn’t be viewed as African American or at least not as native-born African American.

Donna Polat: Question 1: Do you notice a trend for racial and ethnic intermarriage in any particular region of the United States? For example, how does the southeast region of the U.S. compare to the northeast in the number of interracial marriages? Question 2: How does the divorce rate of interracial marriages compare to the divorce rate of couples from the same racial and ethnic background?

Daniel T. Lichter: Q1. Honestly, there hasn’t been much scholarly interest in regional differences in marriage, except to say that different regions have different racial mixes (i.e., , which can affect opportunities to intermarry). Black-white marriages are much more common in the South, for example, than in the mostly white Upper Plains states. Place (or region) matters but it is very hard to attribute higher or lower rates to cultural rather than compositional differences. Some population geographers (notably Mark Ellis, Richard Ellis and their colleagues) have done some very good work on the question of where mixed-race couples first meet. They have focused on neighborhoods, the workplace, schools, and cyberspace. I would encourage you to check them out. Q2. Take a look at my answer to Sanjay Mishra’s question on the same topic. Most studies show higher divorce rates among racially mixed couples, but this is a difficult empirical question to answer conclusively. For one thing, people who marry someone of a different race are often different on other characteristics (e.g., education, values and attitudes, etc.) that may also be related to higher rates of divorce.

Lynda Dickson: Might the “slowdown” of interracial marriages correspond to the slowdown of marriages overall, and are there specific racial combinations (i.e., black-white marriages) that have slowed more than others?

Daniel T. Lichter: These are independent trends. Marriage rates have declined over time, but, among those Asians and Hispanics who marry, a smaller share over time are out-marrying with whites. The share of blacks—particularly black men—who marry whites has continued to increase over the past several decades. But blacks still have exceptionally low rates of intermarriage compared with other groups.

Charlie V. Morgan: Dear Dr. Lichter, Do you think it is important to make a distinction between inter-racial relationships and inter-ethnic relationships? If so, what do these types of “intermarriage” say about the assimilation process, especially for immigrants and their children?

Daniel T. Lichter: Whether inter-racial and inter-ethnic relationships are distinguished from each other obviously depends on the question being asked. Most work on interracial marriage, for example, tends to “racialize” Hispanics, a group that the U.S. Census Bureau and most scholars consider to be an ethnic rather than racial group. Hispanic intermarriage rates are then compared with intermarriage rates among non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks, etc. This is fine as a general analysis strategy. On the other hand, if the goal is to look at pan-ethnicity (e.g., the extent to which different black populations—African Americans, West Indians, etc.—marry each other), then it is important to consider inter-ethnic marriages as well. There is lots of interest today in whether different Asian populations are inter-marrying or not. Out-marriage gives evidence to whether different racial and ethnic groups are losing their national or ancestral identities(e.g., an Asian fusion population, if you will). My colleagues, Christine Batson and Zhenchao Qian, have looked at the question of whether African-born blacks are more likely to marry U.S.-born blacks or to marry whites. In other words, which population are new black immigrants “assimilating” into? These are very interesting and important question, in my view.

Yang Jiang: Dr Lichter, How do you think the increase of biracial/multiracial population in the U.S affect the overall interracial marriage rates? Compared to single race counterparts, are they more likely to to inter marry or intra-marry? How should we distinguish inter- vs intra-marriages for biracial/multiracial individuals?

Daniel T. Lichter: This is a more difficult question to answer than it appears at first blush. On the one hand, mixed-race individuals are more likely to than single-race persons to marry someone other than another mixed-race person. So if mixed-race people are treated as a separate racial category, then this would increase the overall share of interracial marriages in the United States. Zhenchao Qian and I have treated black-white mixed-race persons as black or white or mixed race in separate analyses. In the end, regardless of classification, it doesn’t have much effect on overall rates of racial intermarriage. This is likely to change in the future. Only 2-3 percent of the population today self-identifies as having more than one race. Of course, many people who self-identify as having only one race (President Obama) may in fact be multi-racial. Is President Obama’s marriage to Michelle Obama interracial? This question makes clear the conceptual challenges of this sort of research and the subjective nature of racial self-identification.

Kara Joyner: You have also conducted extensive research on Hispanic migration to new destinations (e.g., small towns in the midwest). Do you have any projects underway (or do you know of any) that compare intermarriage in established versus new gateways? I wonder how the retreat from intermarriage differs according to type of destination.

Daniel T. Lichter: Hi Kara—I have been doing lots of work recently on new Hispanic destinations, especially in rural areas and small towns. But I haven’t looked at inter-marriage. It’s on my summer list of things to do. The interesting thing about new destinations is that they are comprised disproportionately of new immigrants (new arrivals from Mexico and other parts of Latin America) who often have few job skills, low education, and problems with the English language. They are not prime candidates for marriage with non-Hispanic whites. I would expect intermarriage rates for them to be very low—less than for Hispanics nationwide. Some my other work with Mimmo Parisi and Mike Taquino also shows that Hispanics in new destinations—rural and urban—are very segregated from non-Hispanic whites. So day-to-day opportunities for social interaction (and opportunities for intimacyt) would also be depressed between Hispanics and whites in many new destinations. The high segregation in these places may also say something about racial and ethnic relations in these communities.

Larhonda Jackson: Do black men and black women intermarry at the same rate? During research for my graduate thesis in the early part of the decade, I found that a gender disparity existed with this issue. Do you have any statistics regarding race/sex categories and interracial marriage?

Daniel T. Lichter: Perhaps 75 percent of all black-white marriages involve a black man and white woman. Black women have extremely low rates of marriage to white men (about 5 percent). If measured by the number of popular magazine articles on this intermarriage disparity, this is an extremely sensitive issue among unmarried black women. To some, this is a matter of loyalty to race. There already is a big sex ratio in the black community (because of high black male mortality and incarceration) which disadvantages black women in the marriage market. High rates of outmarriage among black men exacerbates this problem. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that black women in general have low marriage rates overall. There is a shortage of black men to marry. The male shortage is especially acute for high-educated black women.

Debbie: Dr. Lichter, can you speak a little more to your comment “intermarriage with whites, as a final step in the assimilation process”?

Daniel T. Lichter: The idea here is that members of minority and majority populations must be equal or similar on other characteristics before they will interact as equals and become open to the idea of intimacy and marriage. In a nutshell, intermarriages with whites will increase among minority populations if they have acquired the language, have become well educated, work at good jobs, attend the same religious institutions, live in the same neighboods, etc. These are all “first