As Americans wrestle with the complexities of life in a multicultural society, the rise in mixed-raced marriages is proof that the walls of racial separation are slowly crumbling - one couple at a time.
Though prejudice still exists in large and small ways, people of different races are getting married in increasing numbers. In 1960, mixed-race marriages totaled about 150,000; in 1995, the number was 1.4 million.
Certainly interracial marriage can foster more racial tolerance between individuals, but sociologists caution that its impact on the country as a whole should not be exaggerated.
Each time two people of different races get together, there is a ripple effect. Their family members, friends and neighbors could get to know someone who is different from them.
Each interracial relationship can also bring stares, insults, isolation and even cross burnings. Still, many mixed-race couples and their children say the rewards are worth the challenges.
Velina Hasu Houston, 37, a playwright in Santa Monica, Calif., endures hostile glares every time she, a descent of Japanese, black and American Indian parents, goes in public with her German American boyfriend.
But, Houston said, peoples’ awareness expands a tiny bit every time they are seen together. In response to the gawks, Houston said her boyfriend often grasps her hand or gives her a peck on the cheek to send the signal: “Yes, you’re seeing what you’re seeing and we’re doing just fine.”
Interracial relationships have come a long way since the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court Loving vs. Virginia ruling. Until then, mixed-race couples could not marry in 17 states. Those who defied the law risked jail sentences or exile from their states.
Charles Byrd’s parents faced that problem when he was born in 1952 in Virginia to a black and American Indian mother and a white father. They did not marry because of the state law.
“My mother doesn’t speak about it much,” said Byrd, publisher of an online magazine, “Interracial Voice.” “I think she felt a lot of shame, guilt and denial.”
How far attitudes have changed can be seen in President Clinton’s comment this week in praise of interracial marriages. They can “break down stereotypes and build bridges,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think people should get married to make a statement - they ought to get married for the right reasons. But I think it’s a good thing.”
In 1995, 1 in 40 married couples were interracial. About 328,000 of the marriages were between blacks and whites. Nearly a million were between whites and races other than black.
The share may be small, but the issue fuels a lot of hostility, evident in the contentious debate over biracial adoption, in the long battle over a “multiethnic” category in the Census, and in the daily experiences of thousands of people.
“Attitudes are better now than in the past, when a relationship between a black man and a white woman could have meant death or castration for him,” said T. Joel Wade, an associate professor of psychology at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa. “But racial attitudes are so ingrained, it’s still thought of as a taboo.”
For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala., says that interracial couples have joined the ranks of blacks and gays as targets of hate crimes.
Generations, geography and the racial combination involved shape the experiences people in mixed-race relationships encounter.
Family opposition is one of the main impediments. The older the relatives are, the more resistant they are likely to be, sociologists said.
Linda Absher, 39, a half-Japanese, half-white librarian from Portland, said she gets many heart-wrenching pleas for advice on her interracial Internet page.
“I got a frantic e-mail yesterday from a black woman whose boyfriend was white. She said his family was going to disown him if he stayed with her,” Absher said.
Dana King, 19, a sophomore at Barnard College in New York, said when her parents married in 1968, her mother’s black family didn’t think the marriage would last six months, and some of her father’s white relatives refused to attend the wedding.
Where people live can also determine the level of harassment they may encounter. Predominantly white, blue-collar areas are usually most critical, while racially diverse, educated communities, such as college towns, are generally more tolerant, said Bucknell’s Wade.
The type of match-up also seems to affect public attitudes. Three in 10 people oppose marriage between blacks and whites, according to a Knight-Ridder poll conducted in May. Respondents were more approving of marriages between other combinations of races, and were least critical of Asian and Hispanic unions.
“Traditional black and white distinctions are the slowest to change because of the whole institution of slavery and the separation of races through formal segregation,” said Larry Hugick of Princeton Survey Research Associates, which conducted the poll. “Other groups came to the country later and under different circumstances, so they don’t have the same kind of history.”