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Fri October 14, 2011
Around the Nation

The Changing Face Of Seeing Race

Originally published on Fri October 14, 2011 9:37 pm

Let's go back to 1967.

That was the year interracial marriage made headlines. Just take the Hollywood classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The film was a new kind of love story for Hollywood. The movie was about a black man who wanted to marry a white woman — a huge taboo at the time.

According to a 1968 Gallup Poll, just 20 percent of Americans thought it was OK for a white person to marry a black person. White Americans were far less likely to accept the idea than blacks. While more than 50 percent of blacks supported such marriages, fewer than 1 in 5 whites did.

But that year the federal court system took a side on this issue that would change the face of America forever.

At the time, 16 states had laws on the books barring such marriages. Two trailblazers from Virginia decided to challenge these antiquated laws. Their names were, of all things, Mildred and Richard Loving.

In June 1967 the Supreme Court ruled that all laws barring marriages between blacks and whites were unconstitutional. After their court victory, Mildred Loving told ABC News why she wanted to fight back: "I say I think that marrying who you want to is a right that no man should have anything to do with. It's a God-given right, I think."

Today, African-Americans and white Americans both widely accept marriages between blacks and whites. According to a recently released Gallup Poll, 96 percent of African-Americans and 84 percent of whites accept the idea.

Plus, there are more interracial and interethnic marriages than ever before.

Growing But Still Rare

According to the Current Population Survey released in September, 7.4 percent of all marriages in the U.S. are between people of two different races or ethnicities. The CPS is a government survey that once a year tracks marriage data by race and ethnicity.

But marriages between blacks and whites, while slowly growing, remain relatively rare. In fact, whites marry blacks less often than they marry any other racial or ethnic group.

As of 2010, just 0.3 percent of white men in marriages were married to black women, and just 0.8 percent of white women in marriages were married to black men. By contrast, 2.1 percent of white men in marriages were married to Asian or American Indian women, and 1.4 percent of married white women had an Asian or American Indian spouse. That meant that last year, white Americans were in marriages with Asians far more often than with blacks even though the number of married African-Americans outnumbered Asians by more than 2 million people.

Similarly, 13.3 percent of Hispanic married men had a non-Hispanic spouse in 2010 and 14.2 percent of married Hispanic women had a non-Hispanic spouse.

That makes married Hispanic men about two-thirds more likely than married black men to have a white spouse. And Hispanic women who are married are four times more likely than black women to have a white husband.

"It reflects the status hierarchy," says Roderick J. Harrison, a demographer at Howard University. "If you're trying to marry up, clearly whites are it. If you're trying to avoid marrying down, it would still look like blacks might be the least preferred."

When it comes to married black Americans, 8.1 percent of men had a white spouse in 2010 — up from 5 percent in 2001. And just 2.4 percent of black women were married to white men in 2001, but by 2010, that figure grew to 3.7 percent.

Those gradual changes in black-white marriage are beginning to change the face of America. Nearly 2 million Americans identified as both black and white on the 2010 census, more than double the number in 2000.

But the data make one thing clear — all racial and ethnic groups are marrying each other more often than they did in the past.

Crumbling Walls

Glen Owen has seen the changes take place with his own eyes.

Owen, who is 43 and white, is a filmmaker. His wife, Meredyth, 42 and black, is a stay-at-home mom. The pair live with their two sons in Atlanta, where they say they have experienced no discrimination. Plus, they see the changing face of America virtually everywhere they look, Owen says.

"You see interracial couples in commercials now. You never would've seen that even five years ago," Owen says. "I think those walls are definitely coming down."

But Owen has vivid memories of things being very different. He grew up 45 minutes north of Atlanta, in a town of roughly 20,000 named Cartersville. He says he'll never forget what happened when black guys at his school dated white girls.

"The principal got involved and called them in and talked to 'em, and parents got involved. They really tried to put a stop to it," Owen says. "And there would be couples that wouldn't go to the prom together because that would've been scandalous."

But it's rarely scandalous today.

Owen went back to his old high school for a football game a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised to spot a handful of interracial couples in the crowd.

But that doesn't mean everything is peachy just yet.

'Totally Shocked'

Take Beth McKay and her husband, Terence. Beth is white. Terence is black. The McKays became national news when a justice of the peace in Louisiana refused to marry them in 2009.

His excuse? Interracial marriages just don't work.

"It was devastating. It was shocking," Beth McKay says. "I think that that's just the best word to describe it. We were just like totally shocked."

Not long after, the justice of the peace lost his job, and the McKays were married by somebody else.

But she says that wasn't the last time she faced racism.

When she's in all-white environments, she says it's pretty common for her to hear people's biases come out.

"Whenever I'm around people and they don't know that my husband is black, that's when I get their honest opinions," she says.

Sometimes the opinions are racist against blacks — and painful for her to hear, she says. Regardless of the biases people harbor, she says, she's glad to have such an intimate perspective on race in America — a perspective she says she would not have if she hadn't married someone of a different race.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: Here's another shift in demographics. Black and white Americans are marrying each other more than ever before. And according to a recent Gallup poll, a record number of people approve of interracial marriage.

Still, as we hear from NPR's Alex Kellogg, it's not entirely mainstream yet.

ALEX KELLOGG, BYLINE: Let's go back to 1967. That was the year interracial marriage made headlines. Just take this Hollywood classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOORBELL)

KELLOGG: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was a new kind of love story for Hollywood. The movie was about a black man who wanted to marry a white woman, a huge taboo at the time. Just listen to the character Sidney Poitier played. Here, he's talking to his future wife about what her parents may think of their relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER")

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIDNEY POITIER: (as John Prentice) You may be in for a bigger shock of your young life.

KATHARINE HOUGHTON: (as Joey Drayton) After 23 years living in the same house with them, don't you think I know my own mother and father?

POITIER: (as John Prentice) Hope so.

HOUGHTON: There's no problem.

KELLOGG: Well, there was a bit of problem. For starters, her parents were uncomfortable with the idea, as were his. According to a Gallup Poll from that time, just 20 percent of Americans thought it was okay for a white person to marry a black person. The father of Poitier's character delivers that message to him loud and clear in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER")

ROY GLENN: (as Mr. Prentice) Have you thought what people would say about you? Why, in 16 or 17 states you'd be breaking the law. You'd be criminals. And say they change the law, that don't change the way people feel about this thing.

KELLOGG: Actually, things did change starting that year. In June 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that all laws barring marriages between blacks and whites were unconstitutional. Two trailblazers from Virginia challenged these antiquated laws. Their names were, of all things, Mr. and Mrs. Loving. After their court victory, Mildred Loving told ABC News why she wanted to fight back.

MILDRED LOVING: I say I think that marrying who you want to is a right that no man should have anything to do with. It's a God-given right, I think.

KELLOGG: Today, inter-racial marriage is fairly common. According to latest government data available, about seven percent of all marriages in the U.S. are between people of two different races or ethnicities.

Glen Owen has seen the changes take place with his own eyes. Owen happens to be white. His wife is black.

GLEN OWEN: You see interracial couples in commercials now. You never would've seen that even five years ago. I think those walls are definitely coming down.

KELLOGG: But Owen has vivid memories of things being very different. Owen grew up in a small town about an hour north of Atlanta in the 1980s. And he says he'll never forget what happened when black guys at his school dated white girls.

OWEN: The principal got involved and called them in and talked to them and parents got involved, and they really tried to put a stop to it. And there would be couples that, you know, you wouldn't go to the prom together because that would've been scandalous.

KELLOGG: But it's rarely scandalous today. Owen went back to his old high school for a football game a few years ago. He was happy to see a handful of interracial couples in the crowd. But that doesn't mean everything is peaches just yet.

Take Beth McKay and her husband, Terence. Beth McKay is white, her husband is black. The McKays became national news when a justice of the peace in Louisiana refused to marry them in 2009. His excuse? Interracial marriages just don't work.

BETH MCKAY: It was devastating. It was shocking. It really was. I think that that's just the best word to describe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCKAY: We were just, like, totally shocked.

KELLOGG: Not long after, the Justice of the Peace lost his job and the McKays were married by somebody else. But she says that wasn't the last time she faced racism. When she's in all-white environments, she says it's pretty common for her to hear people's biases come out.

MCKAY: Whenever I'm around people and they don't know that my husband is black, that's when I get their honest opinions. When they see other people, they make comments and stuff.

KELLOGG: Comments that sometimes offend her. But she says that regardless of what biases people harbor, she says, she's glad to have such an intimate perspective on race in America - a perspective she says she would not have if she hadn't married someone of a different race.

Alex Kellogg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.