Who Intermarries? Education, Nativity, Region, and Interracial Marriage, 1980 and 1990 [*]

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Since the turn of the century, interethnic and interfaith marriages among whites have become commonplace (Alba, 1976; Johnson, 1980; Kennedy, 1944). Many whites have crossed "ethnic lines" to marry people who share their religion; others have crossed both ethnic and religious lines. Interracial marriage, however, occurs far less frequently than interethnic or interfaith marriage. As early as 1910, interethnic marriage was relatively common among whites, but marriage across racial lines was extremely rare (Pagnini & Morgan, 1990), due in part to anti-miscegenation laws forbidding marriage between persons of different races. This legal barrier was not abolished nationwide until 1967. Since then, interracial marriages have increased dramatically, from 310,000 in 1970 to 651,000 in 1980 and to 1,161,000 in 1992 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). These marriages have increased from .7 percent of all marriages in 1970 to 2.2 percent in 1992.

The recent increase in interracial marriage is seen as a positive change in race relations and a decline in racism (Besharow & Sullivan, 1996). It also indicates that racial distances have declined between whites and racial minorities because of the increase in interracial marriages with whites for all racial minorities (Bogardus, 1968; Gurak & Fitzpatrick, 1982; Heer, 1974; Kitano et al., 1984; Monahan, 1976; Murguia & Cazares, 1982). Most of these studies, however, focus on marriage between whites and only one racial minority group, making it difficult to compare the relative distances. As interracial marriage is the final stage of acculturation and assimilation (Gordon, 1964), a comparison of racial differences in interracial marriage can help us understand the variations in the processes of acculturation and assimilation.

Meanwhile, who marries whom across racial groups is likely to be affected by their socioeconomic structures, e.g., compositions in educational attainment. A comparison of mate selection patterns between inmarriage and interracial marriage and differences in these patterns across racial groups can show whether interracially married whites use their racial status as an exchange for racial minorities' higher socioeconomic status (Merton, 1941) and whether these exchanges differ from one racial minority to another. Using data from the 1980 and 1990 censuses, I examine among whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans who are more likely to intermarry than to inmarry and ask whether an interracial marriage is more likely to involve a less-educated white person and a better-educated minority person. Also, I explore whether some of the racial differences in assimilation and exchange can be related to structural differences among racial groups.


For any two racial groups, interracial marriage depends on their opportunities for social contacts. These opportunities, however, are constrained by the relative size of each group (Blau, 1977). African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans are far less numerous than whites, and therefore have fewer opportunities to meet one another. Most interracial marriages, therefore, involve whites, who constitute the majority of the population (Qian, 1997). These opportunities may also differ by region because of the differences in racial compositions in each region. According to the 1990 census, racial minorities account for about one-third of the population in the West, one quarter in the South, one-fifth in the Northeast, and a little over one-tenth in the Midwest (Harrison & Bennett, 1995). Therefore, whites should have the greatest opportunities for interracial marriage in the West but the fewest opportunities in the Midwest. Racial minorities, on the other hand, should have greater opportunities for interracial marriage if their share in the region is small (Blau, 1977). This is because they have fewer opportunities for a comparable spouse within their own racial group as compared to their counterparts living in a region where they have a larger share, and also because racial minorities living in a region where they have a small share are more likely to be assimilated than those living in a region where they have a larger share. …


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