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Multiracial Children's Exposure to Family Instability

Parents' marital status shapes multiracial children's risk of family instability

Key points

  • According to one study, multiracial children born in cohabitations are more likely than their single-race peers to experience family instability.
  • Multiracial children born to married parents had comparable experiences of family instability to that of their single-race peers.
  • Multiracial individuals are a heterogeneous group, whose family contexts differ.

Multiracial individuals are a growing segment of our population. 1 Researchers frequently tout the rising number of interracial unions and multiracial individuals as a sign that racial/ethnic distinctions are diminishing. 2 An assumption behind such a view is that interracial couples live happily ever after once they get married or form a union.

The reality, however, is far more complicated. Although attitudes toward interracial unions have become much more favorable over time, some interracial couples continue to report ostracism from friends and families. 1 Family opposition may increase when interracial couples transition into more serious relationships. 3 For example, transitions into marriage and/or childbearing often intensify opposition because they signal more permanent unions and changes to the racial/ethnic composition of the family line. 3

Such stigma may decrease the stability of interracial unions and increase the family instability experienced by multiracial children. For example, barriers to intermarriage may partially explain why relative to same-race couples, higher shares of interracial couples cohabit. Cohabitations are known to break up at higher rates than marriages. 4 Stigma and lack of family support may also have adverse effects on the relationship quality of interracial couples. 5 Because opposition tends to be most pronounced for White-Black interracial unions, reflecting the historic legacy of anti-miscegenation, the risk of union dissolution may be particularly high for multiracial children of White-Black descent. In general, whether or not multiracial children are more likely than their peers to experience family instability is largely unknown because existing studies focus on the family experiences of single-race children.

Study on multiracial children and family instability

A new study, published in April 2021 in the Journal of Marriage and Family , examined multiracial children’s exposure to family instability through age 12. 6 Choi and Goldberg (2021) investigated whether multiracial children’s experiences of family instability differs from those of their single-race peers, whether multiracial children’s exposure to family instability varies by their parents’ marital status at birth, and whether multiracial children of White and Black descent experience more family instability than children of White and Hispanic descent.

They found that how multiracial children’s risk of family instability compared with that of their single-race peers varied by their parents' marital status at birth. Multiracial children born in cohabitations were more likely than their single-race peers to experience family instability. By contrast, the family instability experiences of multiracial children born to married parents tended to fall between those of their single-race White and single-race minority peers.

Multiracial children’s risk of union dissolution also differs according to both parents’ race and ethnicity, but how it differs continues to depend on parents’ marital status at birth.

Contrary to expectations, multiracial children of White-Black descent born in marriages were less likely than those of White-Hispanic descent to experience family dissolution. This pattern likely arises because White-Black couples in intermarriages are a select group with extraordinary levels of commitment who overcame the formidable barriers to White-Black intermarriage.

Differences between multiracial children born in cohabitation were minimal. The lack of a difference may reflect two opposing forces at play. Parents of White-Black children experience more stigma than parents of White-Hispanic children, increasing their risk of union dissolution. At the same time, the more salient barriers to interracial marriage mean that interracial cohabitations involving White-Black cohabitations may be more stable and “marriage-like” than White-Hispanic cohabitations.

What are the implications of these findings?

These findings underscore the importance of recognizing the heterogeneity of the multiracial population. Their family contexts differ vastly depending on their parents’ marital status at birth and both parents’ race/ethnicity. Moreover, that higher shares of multiracial children are born to cohabitors suggests that the rise in interracial unions may not be blurring racial/ethnic distinctions. Rather, these findings suggest that systemic racism and associated unfavorable attitudes towards interracial unions may be creating a disadvantaged group: multiracial children born in cohabiting unions. These children are significantly more likely than their peers to experience family instability, which is linked to poorer outcomes.

This blog post was co-authored by Rachel E. Goldberg. A version of this post was cross-posted on the Council on Contemporary Families Blog @ The Society Pages.

References

1. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2015/06/11/multiracial-in-america/

2. Qian, Z. and D. Lichter. 2007. Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage. American Sociological Review 72(1): 68-94. https://doi.org/10.1177/000312240707200104

3. Herman, M. R., & Campbell, M. E. 2012. I wouldn’t, but you can: Attitudes toward interracial
relationships. Social Science Research 41: 343–358.

4. Seltzer, J. 2004. Cohabitation in the United States and Britain: Demography, kinship, and the future. Journal of Marriage and Family 66(4): 921-928. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-2445.2004.00062.x

5. Hohmann-Marriott, B. and Paul Amato. 2008. Relationship Quality in Interethnic Marriages and Cohabitations. Social Forces, Volume 87(2): 825–855.

6. Choi, K. and R. Goldberg. 2021. Multiracial Children's Experiences of Family Instability. Journal of Marriage and Family. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12763

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