The findings suggest that the growing number of Hispanic and Asian immigrants to the United States led to more marriages within these groups, and fewer marriages between members of these groups and whites.
“These declines in intermarriages are a significant departure from past trends,” said Zhenchao Qian, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
“The decline reflects the growth in the immigrant population during the 90s – more native-born Asian Americans and Hispanics are marrying their foreign-born counterparts.”
The study also found that interracial marriages involving African Americans increased significantly during the 1990s, but still continued to lag far behind other minorities.
Qian conducted the study with Daniel Lichter, professor at Cornell University . Their results appear in the February 2007 issue of the American Sociological Review.
The researchers studied U.S. census data from 1990 and 2000. They examined married couples between the ages of 20 to 34 who identified themselves as whites, African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, Hispanics or some combination.
Interracial and inter-ethnic marriages began to increase in the 1970s and continued to grow through the 1980s, Qian said. Almost all such marriages are between whites and minorities – very few marriages occur between people of different minority groups.
But the rate of intermarriages began declining in the 1990s– particularly those involving whites and Asian Americans or Hispanics – and this study was designed in part to find out why.
One theory had been that the rise of cohabitation was the cause of the decline, and that fewer interracial couples were marrying because they were more likely to be living together outside of marriage.
However, this study found that is not the case, Qian said.
“Our results showed that recent increases in cohabitation have gone hand-in-hand with increasing shares of interracial marriages,” he said.
For example, with African American men, intermarriages increased by about three-quarters (from 8.3 percent to 14.9 percent) over the 1990s, while interracial cohabitation rates grew by about one half (from 14.7 to 21.9 percent).
“Interracial couples choosing to cohabit have not siphoned off couples who would have otherwise married,” Qian said.
“If you look at changes in the 1990s, the bigger picture is really immigration, especially for Asian Americans and Hispanics. Those are the groups that had the largest influx of immigrants during the 90s.”
The study suggests Hispanic and Asian immigrants are likely to marry among themselves. In addition, more native-born minorities are selecting marriage partners from the growing pool of immigrants.
The result is that the number of native-born Hispanic men in intermarriages with whites declined by nearly 4 percentage points between 1990 and 2000 – from 35.3 percent to 31.9 percent. The number of native-born Asian American men in intermarriages declined from 50.2 to 45.8 percent.
The study found that education played a key role in defining who participated in interracial marriages.
In general, rates of intermarriage go up with increasing levels of education – except for African Americans. For them, rates of marriage with whites didn't change with education.
For example, native-born Hispanic women with a college education were more than three times more likely to be in a marriage with whites compared to their counterparts with less than high school education. The differences in intermarriage as a function of education were even larger for foreign-born minorities.
New Hispanic and Asian immigrants, who tend to have lower levels of education, are more likely to marry their native-born counterparts who also have lower levels of education.
“It is clear that education is an important part of the assimilation process for Hispanics and Asian American,” Qian said.
“The melting pot is clearly bubbling, but mostly along class lines, with the highly educated most likely to cross racial and ethnic lines to marry.”
While education has been a way to bring many ethnic and racial groups together, that hasn't played a role with African Americans, according to Qian.
A major reason may be the U.S. history of discrimination against African Americans continues to make it difficult to cross racial boundaries for marriage. Hispanics and Asian Americans are also less likely to be segregated by schools and neighborhoods, which means they have more opportunities to have regular contact with members of other races.
“Interracial marriages between African Americans and whites will continue to increase, but it will take a lot for blacks to get near the levels of intermarriages seen by other minority groups,” he said.
One issue the researchers had to deal with in this study was a change in the census forms between 1990 and 2000. In 1990, respondents could only choose to identify themselves as one race. In 2000, in response to the growth of mixed race Americans, the census allowed respondents to choose more than one racial/ethnic category.
“Understanding marital assimilation has been made more difficult by the multiple-race classification in the 2000 census,” Qian explained.
But the study did reveal that bi-racial American Indian-white or Asian American-white individuals were more likely to be married to whites rather than American Indians or Asian Americans.
In contrast, intermarriages between African Americans and whites was largely unaffected by changes in racial classification. A major reason is that few African American-white individuals report multiple races – they traditionally have identified themselves as black. Even when they do report multiple races, intermarriage rates with whites remain significantly lower than for other white biracial individuals.
Qian said it is impossible to say if intermarriage trends found in this study will continue.
“It is unclear whether the 1990s represents a short-term pause in the decades-long upward trend in marital assimilation, or whether it is the beginning of a new racial divide,” he said.
“It is possible that the continuing influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America may continue to slow intermarriage, especially if new groups are segregated from the majority white population and native-born minorities.”
Zhenchao Qian | EurekAlert!
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