Interracial unions refer to romantic relationships between people of different racial categories. Generally, the term indicates married (and hence, heterosexual) status, as it is more feasible to identify and carry out social research on this population than non married, non-cohabiting, and/or same sex interracial couples. Sociological inquiry of racial intermarriage stems from the study of assimilation and understanding the social evolution of societies with significant immigration. Researchers employ both qualitative and quantitative methods to study interracial unions: a macro level perspective involves examining demographic data to identify cultural patterns, and a micro level approach focuses on the cultural meaning – derived from social interaction – of an inter racial relationship to the couple and to their family, friends, and community. In recent years more attention has been devoted to the study of the identity of the offspring of interracial unions, but the study of interracial marriage remains sociologically relevant – the rate of interracial marriages can be an indicator of levels of proximity or distance across racial lines, tolerance or prejudice of different groups, and the malleability of the boundaries of racial categories. Interracial unions are studied by sociologists with an interest in racial and ethnic relations as well as those interested in the family.
Sociologists use the metaphor of the ”marriage market” to analyze how people select their spouses: individuals will look for the most desirable partner they can attract given the resources available to them. This model explains why many married couples share similar characteristics such as educational background and socioeconomic status. However, individuals may compensate for any ”mismatching” by providing each other with resources that the other does not possess. This status exchange hypothesis explains that members of higher status groups could be inclined to marry members of lower status groups if the individuals with the lower status could offer a resource to offset that lower status. In his 1941 article ”Intermarriage and the Social Structure: Fact and Theory,” Merton argued that racial minorities could compensate for their lower racial status with a higher socioeconomic position. Much of the research conducted on interracial marriages has focused on an exchange of racial status for socioeconomic status.
Sociologists who study racial and ethnic relations use assimilation theories to address immigrants’ ability to adapt to the new environment and to integrate with other racial and ethnic groups. Milton Gordon established several stages of assimilation that explained what outcomes we can expect if immigrants adapt to and become part of their new culture. One such outcome would be marital assimilation, indicated by significant intermarriage between ethnic and racial groups. Over time, intermarriage among white, European American ethnic groups became quite commonplace, but that trend has not been replicated in the rate of interracial unions. Historical conditions such as colonial ism and slavery are determinants of how inter racial marriages are perceived within a society. Indeed, many states and nations legislated and enforced sanctions against interracial unions. In South Africa, interracial marriages were not entirely uncommon until the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Act of 1950 effectively outlawed interracial unions. Today interracial marriages remain rare occurrences even with the repeal of apartheid induced racial laws in the late 1980s. In the United States, some states forbade interracial marriage up until 1967, when the Supreme Court overturned the last anti miscegenation laws in the case of Loving v. Virginia.
A few trends characterize interracial marriages in the United States. Since 1967 the rate of interracial marriages has increased exponentially, and demographic trends and cultural patterns indicate that this rate will continue to increase in the same direction. However, the growing number of interracial unions does not bear out proportionately among racial groups. The amount of research on interracial marriages between blacks and whites belies the fact that these unions make up a very small percentage of interracial marriages overall. Interracial marriages among blacks remain relatively uncommon, especially when compared with the rates of interracial marriage among Asians, Latinos, and American Indians. Younger generations find interracial unions more acceptable: researchers find that interracial marriages are more common among newer immigrant groups from Asian and Latin American countries, particularly among the young, native born population.
Qualitative analyses indicate that interracial couples face an array of challenges as a consequence of their decision to ”cross the color line” in their selection of a spouse. Public opinion of interracial unions is much more favorable than it has ever been, but many people tend to be less accepting when an immediate family member chooses to date or marry interracially. Interracial couples may deal with strained relations with their families and perhaps even estrangement. They must also contend with a worldview that posits race as an essential quality, not a socially constructed element of a person’s identity. They may find themselves defending their relationship in ways other couples are never called on to do. Finally, their own ideas about race may be tested – they may witness privilege and/or racism in new ways.
Research on interracial unions would be well served if the literature based on both demo graphic and qualitative approaches was synthesized. As new immigration patterns take shape, the world becomes more diverse, and racial boundaries continue to shift, it will be important for those studying interracial unions to employ innovative perspectives. In an increasingly global society, the field would benefit from a cross cultural and cross national examination of interracial unions.
- Dalmage, H. M. (2000) Tripping on the Color Line: Black White Multiracial Families in a Racially Diverse World. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Fu, V. K. (2001) Racial Intermarriage Pairings. Demography 38(2): 147 59.
- Kalmijn, M. (1993) Trends in Black/White Intermarriage. Social Forces 72(1): 119 46.
- Kalmijn, M. (1998) Intermarriage and Homogamy: Causes, Patterns, Trends. Annual Review of Sociology 24: 395 412.
- Lee, J. & Bean, F. D. (2004) America’s Changing Color Lines: Immigration, Race/Ethnicity, and Multiracial Identification. Annual Review of Sociology 30: 221 42.
- Moran, R. F. (2001) Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Qian, Z. (1997) Breaking the Racial Barriers: Variations in Interracial Marriage Between 1980 and 1990. Demography 34: 263 76.
- Root, M. P. P. (2001) Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
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