Hearing or reading about Mildred and Richard Loving — the “Loving” half of Loving vs. Virginia – always warms my heart. In the midst of fierce racism and on-going legal and political battles over the legal status of interracial marriages, the couple fought to be recognized as married in Virginia. I don’t like their story just because I, myself, am the child of an interracial couple; and, I tend to cringe when I hear “same-sex marriage is just like interracial marriage” (which misses the unique, yet intersecting, manifestations of racism, sexism, and homophobia). I appreciate their story because they made history in the process of fighting simply to be recognized as a married couple.
New Media Attention
For a number of reasons, interracial and interethnic couples have caught the media’s attention in the past week or so. A documentary about the Lovings, “The Loving Story,” aired on Valentine’s Day, coinciding with the release of a Pew Research Center report on the rising number of interracial marriages in the US. It seems fair to suggest that this attention also stems from the recognition of a growing number of multiracial and multiethnic people since the 2010 Census, and the election of President Barack Obama (who is multiracial). As I noted elsewhere about some recent attention on the lives of Black women, it seems the media is suddenly interested in people who have existed throughout history. I welcome the new attention, of course, but a few glaring matters seem overlooked.
But, What About…
The biggie, of course, is how the media talks about interracial and interethnic couples as though they never existed before the Lovings, and multiracial and multiethnic people were never born before Barack Obama. I would venture to say that so long as there has been “race,” there have been relationships and identities that transcend the boundaries between distinct racial groups. And, relatedly, some seem to talk about legal interracial marriages as though none existed before the 1967 US Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down the remaining 20 state laws that banned interracial marriage.
Second, little is discussed about the variation among interracial and interethnic couples. The numbers and growth/decline of such couples vary by racial and ethnic pairing, as well as gender. For example, the percent of whites who marry someone of a different race or ethnicity is the smallest, while that among Asians is the largest. White-Black pairings make up a smaller percent of interracial and interethnic couples than white-Asian and white-Hispanic. If we were to talk about these differences by race and ethnicity, we would need to talk frankly about the differences in relations between whites and people of color, and how they are gendered, classed, and the role of immigration. (Maybe that’s asking too much for quick splashes about “the soaring rates of intermarriage!“)
Third, there seems to be an absence of discussing race and ethnic relations, and racial and ethnic identity. Yes, the increasing number of interracial and interethnic couples is due, in part, to increasing acceptance of such couples. But, what does this say about race and ethnicity today? Why aren’t there more couples like this? And, how interesting, the primacy of race. Heterosexuality (what we could call “intergender marriages”) is assumed. In fact, some use “intermarriage” (which doesn’t suggest what is being crossed — is it race? religion? class? gender?) and “interracial marriage” interchangeably, indicating the exclusive focus on racial and ethnic boundaries. And, though, in the same discussions, we acknowledge the growing number of multiracial and multiethnic people, we fail to ask about the cross-racial and -ethnic relationships for them. (Mildred Loving was multiracial — Black and American Indian.)
Finally, in such a great focus on the increasing accepting of interracial and interethnic couples, the higher divorce rate for these couples compared to intraracial and intraethnic marriages is glossed over, if mentioned at all:
The Pew study also tracks some divorce trends, citing studies using government data that found overall divorce rates higher for interracial couples. One study conducted a decade ago determined that mixed-race couples had a 41 percent chance of separation or divorce, compared to a 31 percent chance for those who married within their race.
Another analysis found divorce rates among mixed-race couples to be more dependent on the specific race combination, with white women who married outside their race more likely to divorce. Mixed marriages involving blacks and whites also were considered least stable, followed by Hispanic-white couples.
The actual Pew report gives a little more detail, suggesting that it is Black-white marriages that are most likely to end in divorce, though this may be largely among Black men-white women pairings. Again, this relates to the importance of talking about the variation in relations between whites and people of color. But, it also warrants further inspection — what is unique about these couples? Arguably, despite such growing social acceptance, these couples are less stable because of lower levels of support from friends and family and integration into each other’s lives.
Ideally, there will be more reflection on what this means for the future of racial and ethnic relations, racial and ethnic identities, and racial and ethnic communities. I hate to admit that I share the pessimism of others — the supposed blurring of racial and ethnic lines will probably not translate into the end of race and ethnicity, rather simply a reformulation of racial and ethnic boundaries and hierarchies.