Nearly a half century after the Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage, one in six newlyweds in the United States married someone of a different race or ethnicity in 2015 — more than five times the rates in 1967.
That's according to a Pew Research Center analysis released Thursday that marks the coming 50th anniversary of the June 12 anniversary of the court's ruling in Loving v. Virginia by looking at interracial and interethnic marriage trends among newlyweds in urban areas.
For the report, Pew defined intermarriage as someone who is white, black, Asian, American Indian or multiracial married to someone of another one of those races, or a Hispanic person married to a non-Hispanic person, said Gretchen Livingston, Pew senior researcher, who wrote the report.
She said that she and her colleagues debated whether to include Hispanics, but "the fact is most Hispanics define being Hispanic as a racial category — something like two-thirds do so. It seems like a salient category that it makes sense to separate out, but it's absolutely a difficult issue, and I think the way the Census Bureau presently collects the data makes it more difficult to deal with that issue."
The bureau asks for race and then asks whether someone is Hispanic.
While interracial marriage is more common, where it is more likely to take place varied greatly, researchers found. Intermarriage is more common in large urban areas than in rural areas overall (18 percent compared to 11 percent. Some of the areas with the highest rates of racial and ethnic diversity also had the highest rates of intermarriage, such as Honolulu, where 42 percent of new marriages were intermarriages.
But diversity and intermarriage don't always line up. For example, Fayetteville, North Carolina, and the extended Palm Bay, Florida, area are both much less diverse, but have high intermarriage rates, something the report attributes in part to proximity to military bases. Intermarriage "is typically more common among people in the military than among civilians," the report noted.
Intermarriage is not nearly as common (about 3 percent each) in Jackson, Mississippi, or Asheville, North Carolina. The report says some areas have little racial diversity and that makes intermarriage less likely. But it's not clear-cut. Jackson is very diverse and has the same rate as Asheville, which is not nearly as diverse.
Attitudes and who's marrying
Attitudes about intermarriage also vary according to location: 13 percent of adults in the South and 11 percent of those in the Midwest disapprove of interracial marriage, compared to 4 percent in the West and 5 percent in the Northeast.
"In just seven years, the share of adults saying that the growing number of people marrying someone of a different race is good for society has risen 15 points, to 39 percent," based on a Pew Survey conducted in conjunction with the report.
"The decline in opposition to intermarriage in the longer term has been even more dramatic, a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the General Social Survey has found. In 1990, 63 percent of nonblack adults surveyed said they would be very or somewhat opposed to a close relative marrying a black person; today the figure stands at 14 percent," the report said.
Opposition to a close relative entering into an intermarriage with a spouse who is Hispanic or Asian has also declined markedly since 2000, when data regarding those groups first became available. The share of nonwhites saying they would oppose having a family member marry a white person has edged downward as well," according to the report.
The concept of race is no longer accepted by many people, said Stephanie Coontz, Council on Contemporary Families director of research and education and a history professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. "Race itself, we are increasingly realizing, is a pretty meaningless category, but has historic meaning in the U.S. It is a scientifically meaningless category that has had terribly severe consequences in the United States," she added.
Livingston said that black newlywed men are about twice as likely as black women to marry someone of a different race or ethnicity, while for Asians it works the other way. Asian women are more likely than Asian men to intermarry, 36 percent compared to 21 percent.
The report also notes that for black men the gap is wider based on education. Black men with at least a bachelor's degree are more likely to intermarry than those with lower educational attainment.
The most common intermarriage is one white spouse and one Hispanic spouse.
Loving v. Virginia
The Loving case centered around the marriage of Mildred Loving, who was black, and Richard Loving, who was white. They had married in a state where there was no ban, but moved to Virginia, where interracial marriage was against the law and they were sentenced to a year in jail for their marriage. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed that bans on interracial marriage are unconstitutional.
FILE - Richard P. Loving and his wife, Mildred, pose in this Jan. 26, 1965, file photograph. Residents of Caroline County, Virginia, the Lovings married in Washington, D.C., in 1958. Upon their return to Virginia, the interracial couple was convicted under the state's law that banned mixed marriages. They eventually won a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 1967 that overturned laws prohibiting interracial unions. (AP Photo) | Associated Press
It is considered a civil rights case and the decision came down about the time that the Supreme Court also ruled that incarcerated prisoners could not be barred from marrying.
"I think the Loving decision was an outcome of changes in a gradual sense that the state did not have a right to tell people who to love," said Coontz. "As the new (2016 movie 'Loving') shows, it did humanize the relationship between a man and woman who clearly loved each other very much."
Both decisions showed that "just because you disapprove of the marriage or a person, you can’t prevent them from marrying," Coontz said. Loving "was a big step for race relations; it was a line in the sand. Also, of course, it opened the door to the claim that marriage was a right," with implications for same-sex marriage.
Justice Anthony Kennedy cited Loving in the court's 2013 ruling that struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples.
Loving has also been cited in rulings where federal judges struck down state constitutional bans against same-sex marriage, including in Utah and Virginia.