Fifty years after the Supreme Court struck down laws forbidding interracial marriage, more Americans say marrying someone of a different race is good for society, but unions across racial lines are still uncommon.
One in six newlyweds chose a spouse of a different race in 2015, according to an analysis of census surveys by the Pew Research Center. That’s a fivefold increase from the 3 percent of newlyweds who were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity in 1967, the year the Supreme Court decided the landmark case, Loving v. Virginia.
But it represents less than half of the 39 percent of adults who said that intermarriage is good for society. A Pew analysis of General Social Survey data showed the percentage of people who say they would be opposed to a family member marrying someone of a different race or ethnicity has dropped from 31 percent in 2000 to 10 percent today. Opposition to a family member marrying someone who is black specifically has plummeted from 63 percent in 1990 to 14 percent last year.
That there are more people who say they favor or tolerate interracial marriage than there are interracial couples who say “I do” could be a reflection of the uneven progress the country has made in race relations since the 1960s, when laws were passed dismantling legal segregation and discrimination.
It’s also a matter of location, experts say: Areas with diverse populations generally have a higher share of interracial marriages. Which is to say, even if people are comfortable with interracial marriage, they have to be able to meet and fall for someone of a different race or ethnicity.
The Pew analysis shows that the biggest increases in interracial marriages involve black newlyweds. The percentage who married someone from a different racial or ethnic group has more than tripled since 1980 from 5 percent to 18 percent in 2015. White newlyweds also saw a significant jump in interracial marriages during that period, from 4 to 11 percent.
Yet whites and blacks, the two groups that segregationists most had in mind when they enacted anti-miscegenation laws, are still the least likely to marry someone of a different race.
The overall rate of interracial marriage is being driven by the rapid population growth of Hispanics and Asians, the two groups with the highest rate of intermarriage in the United States.
“The continued rise of intermarriage is likely being driven by changing attitudes and the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the country,” said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at Pew said in an interview.
Nearly 3 in 10 Asian newlyweds (29 percent) and 27 percent of Hispanics have spouses of a different race or ethnicity. A Hispanic-white couple is the most common, accounting for 42 percent of interracial marriages, while black-white newlyweds account for 11 percent.
Zhenchao Qian, a professor of sociology at Brown University, said an increasingly diverse marriage market has fueled the increase in interracial unions.
“Historically, we’ve had a white-black society. Over time we are starting to see more Hispanics and Asians in the U.S.,” he said. “When you have more [racial] groups, you’re bound to have more interracial marriages.”
More social and economic opportunities for people of color also has also reduced their “social distance” from whites, Qian said. He said that education — and its role in helping people improve their social and economic lot — is one of the most important factors behind the increase in interracial marriages.
Educated people are more likely to get better jobs and live in better neighborhoods. The result, he said, is more “opportunities to create contacts for people who otherwise have no connection with people of other groups.”
Intermarriage is more prevalent among people who live in major metropolitan areas, the Pew analysis found, with Honolulu leading the nation with 42 percent of newlyweds married to someone of a different race or ethnicity. Honolulu’s pool of potential spouses — unmarried and recently married adults — is made up of 42 percent Asians, 20 percent non-Hispanic whites and 9 percent Hispanics.
The next highest metropolitan area is Las Vegas and its suburbs, where 31 percent of newlyweds were in interracial unions. In that area, 46 percent of people in the marriage market are non-Hispanic white, 27 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are non-Hispanic black and 9 percent are Asian.
The flip side of that equation is that people who don’t have many opportunities to meet other people are less likely to marry outside of their racial or ethnic group — even if they aren’t opposed to interracial marriage.
Metropolitan areas that lack that level of diversity have low rates of intermarriage. For instance, Asheville, N.C., where the marriage pool is 85 percent white, has an intermarriage rate of only 3 percent.
“I think society is really changing but certainly there are regional differences depends on whether you live,” Qian said. “You’ve got to have opportunities to meet some of a different race before you can know something about them.”