July 4, 1996

Number of Black-White Couples Rising Sharply, Study Says


WASHINGTON -- Marilyn Benoit, a black psychologist, recently went with her husband, who is white, to a concert in Reston, Va. Ms. Benoit was pleasantly surprised to see the number of interracial couples milling easily about the suburb, hardly drawing a curious, hostile or even a second glance.

"We were absolutely taken aback to see how interracial the scene in Reston was," Ms. Benoit said. "There were lots of different couples, Asian and white, Indian and white, Hispanic and white, black and white -- lots of different kinds of mixtures. It was very refreshing."

And, a new study says, increasingly common among blacks and whites.

According to the study, published this week in New Democrat magazine, the pace of marriage between blacks and whites in the United States is rapidly accelerating. The study noted that in 1993, of all new marriages by blacks, 12.1 percent were to white partners, up from 2.6 percent in 1970.

To be sure, the number of such couples remains small, amounting to, by one estimate, about 1 percent, or 500,000, of the nation's roughly 57 million marriages. And the percentage of blacks marrying outside their race remains much smaller than the proportion of Asians who do so or the number of Hispanics who wed outside their ethnic group.

But the new study indicates that at a time when many politicians, civil-rights leaders and others speak often and movingly of an American society of heightened racial polarization, intensified group solidarity and increased hostility between groups, more and more blacks and whites are doing a curious thing: falling in love with each other.

"One thing these figures show is that racism, at least in the mating game, is down," said Douglas J. Besherov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the study along with Timothy S. Sullivan, an economics instructor at Southern Illinois University. "Notwithstanding whatever is happening in the public policy arena, when it's one-on-one, there just seems to be less racism."

Using Census Bureau figures, the authors calculated that in 1990, 5.9 percent of all married blacks were married to whites, up from 3.4 percent in 1980 and 1.7 percent in 1960. While marriages between black women and white men remain far more rare than the reverse, the number of black woman-white man couples jumped sharply in the 1980s, to 1.7 percent of all marriages with at least one black spouse from .8 percent.

And Besherov's research indicates that the nature of interracial marriage is changing. In the past, Besherov said, interracial unions tended to occur later in life and were likely to be a second, third or later marriages. He theorizes that by waiting longer, these couples obviated the possibility of having and raising children, always the most problematic issue in an interracial marriage.

But the new study indicated that in 1990, 21.7 percent of white women married to black men were in other than their first marriage, down from 32.9 percent in 1985. In addition, the study found that 35.4 percent of white women married to black men said they planned to have children, a higher proportion than the 29 percent of white women married to white men who said they wanted children.

"The big thing we found is that these marriages have an equal propensity to having babies as did white-white marriages and black-black marriages," Besherov said. "It's no longer just two lonely people who just want to go on vacations to Mexico together."

The authors of the study note that the Census Bureau found in 1990 that nearly 2 million children live in homes where the primary adults were of different races, double the 1 million in 1980 and more than four times the number in 1970.

Besherov said the phenomenon was another indication that class is beginning to rival race as a major engine driving social trends in the country. As more and more blacks achieve higher education levels and middle-class economic status, their attractiveness to white middle-class suitors increases, he said.

"For the black middle class, things have never been better," Besherov said. "Their education levels are almost comparable to whites, their income levels are high. So the marriageability of African Americans is going up, economically and socially."

But the growing amount of black-white marriages could stem, in part, from society's failure as well. With an estimated 32 percent of black men age 20 to 29 -- the prime marrying age -- in prison or pretrial detention, or on parole or probation, and with the number of black women attending colleges greatly outpacing the number of black men, more and more black women say they feel they have little choice but to marry outside their race, if they are to find a compatible mate.

Indeed, the interracial marriage rate for black women is climbing faster than the rate for black men.

The study extrapolated trends using 1990 Census data, as well as data from the 1985, 1990 and 1995 Current Population surveys -- massive polls conducted by the Census Bureau -- and an analysis of marriage data from the National Center for Health Statistics. The report focused exclusively on black-white marriage, which Besherov said remains "the last taboo."

But, he said, when one examines the numbers for intermarriage between whites and Asians, and non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics, "the numbers are just exploding."

While about 6 percent of black married men and 2 percent of black married women have spouses who are not black, according to the 1990 Census, 12 percent of married Asian men and 25 percent of married Asian women have wed a person who is not Asian.

The increase in black-white marriage is testimony to how much the racial landscape has altered since 1967, when the Supreme Court in a case called Loving vs. Virginia, struck down state laws against miscegenation. At that time, 19 states had such laws against interracial marriage on their books.

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company