Fact and Fiction in Mixed-Race Marriages
The issues aren’t just black and white.
Posted Jul 30, 2017
“Virginia is for lovers” may be the state’s travel slogan, but 50 years ago one couple was banished from the state for committing the crime of getting married. Richard Loving, a man of European descent, had fallen in love with Mildred Jeter, a woman of African and Native American origins. They wanted to marry, but Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws forbade mixed-race marriages. So they crossed the Potomac and said their vows in the nation’s capital, which had no such restrictions.
When they returned home, Mr. and Mrs. Loving were arrested. Instead of going to prison, the couple agreed to leave the state permanently. With the help of the ACLU, the Lovings sued the Commonwealth of Virginia. However, it wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. At that time, 16 states still had such laws on the books.
Since then, the number of mixed-race marriages has increased steadily. In 1970, just three years after the Supreme Court decision, surveys showed there were about 900,000 mixed-race couples living in the United. Three decades later, studies showed a five-fold increase to 4.9 million. These numbers include not just black-white marriages but rather all biracial couplings—any mixture of black, white, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American—and regardless of whether the pair is legally married or cohabiting.
Ironically, Virginia now has a higher percentage of black-white marriages than any other state. So maybe now Virginia really is for lovers after all.
These statistics come from a recent article by counseling psychologist Marlon Robinson at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. It’s comforting to know that American attitudes toward biracial marriages have greatly improved over the last fifty years. However, the goal of Robinson’s article was to examine the received wisdom that mixed-race marriages are more likely to fail than same-race couplings.
To answer that question, it’s best to look first at the factors that affect the success of same-race marriages. It’s generally believed that compatibility and good communication skills are the keys to a happy marriage. However, research findings simply don’t bear out these intuitions. Many marriages fail despite high compatibility and skillful communication. Meanwhile, plenty of others thrive regardless of personal differences and a lack of social skills.
What’s most important in determining whether a marriage will succeed or fail is the amount of long-term stress the couple experiences. This stress can come from outside the marriage, for example from financial problems or work-related issues. It can also arise within the marriage, for instance from difficulties in child-rearing or health issues—whether physical or psychological. Lack of support for the marriage from society in general or from extended family in particular can also tip the scale towards dysfunction and divorce.
Generally speaking, race by itself doesn’t seem to have an influence on whether a marriage will fail or flourish. Thus, if we compare mixed-race and same-race couples who enjoy the same quality of life, we find no difference in divorce rates. In this sense, there’s no evidence for the received wisdom that biracial marriages are more likely to fail.
However, race is correlated with other factors that do have a impact on marriage quality. When researchers tracked same- and mixed-race newlywed couples for 15 years, they found that 66% of the white couples were still married, compared with 59% of the black couples. In other words, African-Americans are more likely to divorce. But this isn’t surprising, given they tend to experience more financial distress and societal discrimination than European Americans.
When the researchers looked at the 15-year survival rate for black-white couples, they found that 59% were still married. From a white perspective, this means an increased risk of divorce, and this may be where the received wisdom about biracial marriages being more likely to fail comes from. Yet from a black perspective, this is a reduction in the risk of marriage failure.
The researchers believe that two factors account for this “middle-road” risk of divorce in black-white couples—socioeconomic status and societal discrimination. On the one hand, black spouses tend to experience an increase in their standard of living. As a result, their risk of divorce goes down. On the other hand, white spouses tend to experience an increase in societal discrimination. As a result, their risk of divorce goes up.
In his article, Robinson also points out two issues unique to biracial couples that impact the quality of their marriages. One issue is family support. There’s little you can do about the effects of discrimination from society at large—the awkward stares, the inappropriate comments, or the unfair treatment. However, family support can go a long way towards buffering these societal insults.
When both spouses’ parents approve of the union and welcome their other-race son- or daughter-in-law into their homes, this goes a long way toward putting the biracial marriage on a firm foundation. Of course, family support is important for same-race marriages as well. But family rejection is more likely in mixed-race unions.
The other issue is unique to mixed-race marriages. We tend to think of race in terms of skin color and typical physical characteristics. But at a more fundamental level, racial differences are really about differences in culture. In this sense, mixed-race couples face the same challenges as bi-cultural couples of the same race.
When two people from different cultures marry, an important key to making the union a success is respect for each other’s cultural heritage. When spouses look down on their partner’s culture as inferior to their own, or when they feel it's not worthwhile getting to know their partner’s people or their ways and traditions, there’s little chance for long-term happiness in the marriage.
This observation holds true not only for black-white marriages but for all couples. Each of us has a rich cultural heritage that’s an integral part of who we are as a person. By disrespecting your partner’s culture, you disrespect your partner, devaluing them as a person.
On the flip side, you show your partner respect when you take an interest in their heritage, build relationships with their people, and see the value in their way of doing of things. When both partners can do that, a biracial marriage can be a deeply enriching experience.
Robinson, M. C. (2017). Black and white biracial marriage in the United States. The Family Journal: Counseling for Couples and Families, 25, 278-282.