How Many Melting Pots? Intermarriage, Panethnicity, and the Black/non-Black Divide in the United States

Article excerpt


Marriage choices have long been used to assess the importance of social distinctions such as education, race, religion, and social class. These studies view marriage as a form of social interaction, using the extent to which groups engage in this form of interaction to reveal the importance of the distinctions between them. Marriage is a key form of social interaction because of its intimate nature and how it organizes individuals' lives. If members of two groups regularly intermarry, then the distinction between the two groups is likely to be unimportant for other forms of social interaction. On the other hand, if members of two groups seldom intermarry, it is likely that the distinction between the two groups is greatly important for many other forms of social interaction as well. Intermarriage also has implications for future generations as these families form the environments within which future generations will be raised.

This study uses racial and ethnic intermarriage patterns to assess arguments about race and ethnicity in the United States. If minorities tend to intermarry primarily with Whites, this would support the assimilation framework which assumes that minority groups will eventually integrate into mainstream society (e.g., Gordon, 1964). If intermarriage occurs largely under Asian and Latino umbrellas, this would support the notion of panethnicity, which has different Asian American and Latino groups consolidating under Asian American and Latino umbrellas, respectively (Espiritu, 1992; Lopez & Espiritu, 1990). Researchers have also argued that the fundamental racial cleavage in the U.S. is between Blacks and non-Blacks (e.g., Yancey, 2003). Finding that other groups strongly avoid Blacks as marriage partners would support this view.

I describe marriage patterns at a high level of detail using a unique dataset, the 1 in 6 Long Form Sample of the 1990 U.S. Census. Many studies describe intermarriage patterns for large, aggregate groups such as whites, Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans (e.g., Blackwell & Lichter, 2000; Qian, 1997), but these studies use a coarse classification of groups (e.g., Mexican and Cuban Americans differ greatly in their immigration histories but are combined into a Latino category). A few studies do examine intermarriage for detailed groups such as Japanese Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans (e.g., Gilbertson et al., 1996; Kitano et al., 1984; Liang & Ito, 1999), but these studies are narrow in geographic scope. Other studies (Qian et al., 2001; Qian & Cobas, 2004; Rosenfeld, 2001) focus on Latinos and Asians separately. This study is unique in its national scope and its level of detail with respect to the classification of groups.

Spouse Selection and Group Boundaries

Current theories of spouse selection focus on three domains: (1) group size and distribution, (2) individual-level characteristics and preferences, and (3) the role of third parties (Kalmijn, 1998). Everything else equal, members of smaller groups will be more likely to intermarry because potential co-ethnic spouses are fewer and consequently more difficult to find. Local "marriage markets" are also important as racial and ethnic groups can be geographically concentrated and people often find spouses in their neighborhoods or schools (Kalmijn & Flap, 2001). After controlling for the effects of group size, individual-level and third-party influences on intermarriage reveal the contours of the social structure.

Individual-level approaches to spouse selection conceive of marital and non-marital unions as partnerships producing goods such as children, emotional support, status, and insurance (Becker, 1991; Kalmijn, 1998; Oppenheimer, 1997). People "shop" in the marriage market and seek to "purchase" the most desirable spouse they can attract with the resources they have to offer. Since marriage requires the cooperation of both parties, individuals must have sufficient and appropriate currency to gain the assent of the desired spouse. …