Anecdotal evidence abounds—some persons carry a very negative bias toward persons who are different from them on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion, and some persons are still vehemently opposed to race mixing via interracial marriage. For instance, in 2000, Alabama became the last state to repeal a ban against interracial marriage. While repeal of such a ban does represent progress, the back-story on this event is that 41% of Alabamans voted against lifting the ban. In 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched an investigation into a hate mail campaign against prominent black men married to white women (National Public Radio, December 30, 2005). Cross-burning incidents continue across the country, including in the American northeast (e.g., Long Island), and since President Obama’s election, the number of hate groups (i.e., nativists, Neo-Nazis, etc.) and militias have exploded to record levels (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010). And in late 2009, a white justice of the peace in Louisiana refused to issue a marriage license to a black and white couple out of concern for any children they might have. Mr. Bardwell said, “I think those children suffer, and I won't help put them through it'” (New York Times, October 17, 2009). What do we make of this?
One interpretation is that while a great deal of progress has been made, interracial marriage is still a hot button issue within and across racial communities. Pressing this button activates a host of struggles and contestations, including racialized and sexualized stereotypes, opposition from family and friends, and community rejection. Marrying across race, and being seen with a interracial partner or multiracial children, raises important and often volatile questions: Who belongs, and in what social spaces, which bodies can mix with what other bodies, and what borders are being crossed, by whom, and with what consequences?
To cross a border is to penetrate into a social space with its own rules, norms, and values. Persons, often self-appointed (e.g., the Minutemen in the Texas and Arizona border regions), perform the role of border guards, policing the line, checking for any potential violators of the dominant group’s norms and expectations. Categories of race often serve as a means of keeping others out of social groups and communities. Being in the “wrong neighborhood,” “wrong side of town,” or “wrong side of the tracks”— clichéd phrases grounded in geographical metaphors— also refer to differences along the lines of race, and of class. While residential neighborhoods and social networks are more integrated today than they were in the 1970s, Fryer (2007) observed that in “a typical American city, 64% of blacks would have to move to ensure an even distribution of blacks across the city” (p. 71). Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Centre, an anti-bias advocacy and litigation group, stated “Residential segregation underlies virtually every racial disparity in America, from education to jobs to the delivery of health care” (New York Times, August 10 2009). And Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at the City University of New York, found that “racial isolation is increasing for blacks, falling slightly for whites” and that “income level has very little impact on the degree of residential racial segregation experienced by African-Americans”. Finally, friendship networks in public schools are still quite segregated, with the average student possessing just 0.7 friends of a different race (Echenique & Fryer, 2008). Thus, social distance is still a big factor in meeting, and marrying, across the racial border. More on this, and current attitudes toward interracial marriage, in the next posting.
Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.
Echenique, F., & Fryer, R. (2007). A measure of segregation based on social interactions. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122, 441-485.
Fryer, R. (2007). Guess who’s coming to dinner?: Trends in interracial marriage over the 20th century. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21, 71-90.