A Closer Look at Interracial Marriage Statistics
“Study: 1 in 7 New U.S. Marriages is Interracial” – CBS News
“Interracial marriage: more than double the ‘rate in the 1980s’” – The Christian Science Monitor
“New Study Finds There Are More Interracial Marriages Than Ever” – Glamour magazine
Armed with these headlines alone, what can we surmise about interracial marriage in the U.S.? Given that such unions are “flourishing,” “common,” and at “an all time high,” I might assume that the people I know are unusual because they are not in interracial relationships.
But let’s go beyond the headlines. In fact, let’s go to the source of many of these headlines --a recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. The data show that 14.6 percent of all new marriages in the U.S. occurred between people of differing ethnicities/races. The distinction between new marriages and already married people is an important one to pay attention to because it tells us what population the statistic refers to; without keeping that in mind, the numbers tell us nothing.
So back to the statistic--14.6 percent – because it refers to new marriages, and new marriages are only a portion of all marriages..
It is hard to qualify 14.6 percent or 8.0 percent of almost anything as being abundant; the bottom line regarding interracial marriage in the U.S. is that it remains highly unusual. Yet the media has been very busy reporting results of the Pew Research Center on interracial marriage.
What some of these headlines highlight is a trend. They point out that although intermarriages are a small portion of all marriages, over the past 30 years, the portion of new and ongoing marriages has increased drastically. Notice that some headlines highlight this comparison: In 1980, 3.2 percent of all married people were in interracial relationships, but 8.0 percent were in 2010. And the 14.6 percent of new marriages that are interracial is up from 6.7of new marriages in percent in 2008.
In both cases, it is legitimate to refer to current rates of interracial marriage as being “at an all time high” and indeed they are now “more than double” what they were. But hopefully, with some training, either of these kinds of qualifiers will prompt you to ask, “High? How high?” and “More than double what number?” Unless we think about and get this kind of detail, we are left with the impression that interracial marriage has swept the land!
As we consider these statistics, it’s also important to remember that interracial marriages were illegal in some states in the U.S. until 1967, with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Loving v. Virginia case. Given the social and legal context of the day, even without knowledge of the data of the last 30 years, would you have guessed that there was a rash of interracial marriages in 1968, 1969, or 1970? Or even in 1977, ten years after the Supreme Court decision? No. Therefore, baseline data on interracial marriage reflects the scarcity of this phenomenon.
And because of that, even relatively small increases can be described as indicative of big change. For example, 2 percent is double 1 percent, but 2 percent of something still isn’t a lot. Increases from 3.2 percent to 8.0 percent, and from 6.7 percent to 14.6 percent represent the same kind of change.
At the end of the last post on interracial marriage, I wrote, “Regarding young Mr. Smith, like 84.5 percent of people in his racial/ethnic group, he is marrying within his race.” The first chart in that piece contained the answer to Mr. Smith’s racial identity; unlike 15.5 percent of Blacks, he is not entering an interracial marriage. That same chart also highlights the point—displaying data for four racial/ethnic groups—that most newlyweds are not marrying people of a different racial/ethnic background.
Take a look at the chart below:
Initially, as I looked at the bars representing black men next to the bar representing black women, I was perplexed. Why? Because the proportions are so similar; it looked to me like black men and black women marry “out” at the same rate, and to the same other race/ethnicity. But how is that possible when we know from an even earlier post focusing on black/white interracial relationships (see chart below) that there are far more white women and black men married than there are white men and black women?
I expected to see that jump out at me in the bar chart above and was surprised to see such similarities. Do you see the fault in my initial thinking? It’s the issue of the population again. Data in the bar chart are of blacks who “out-married”, while the line graph compares raw numbers of black/white couples. Therefore, to make a direct comparison I had to remind myself that the shaded portion of the bar chart that represents black marriages to whites represents about 100,000 women but more than 300,000 black men.
Blue line represents black husband/white wife.
Red line represents white husband/black wife.
Both the headlines and the data about interracial marriage remind us that we need to think critically about what numbers we hear about really tell us about social change.