This dramatic shift represents a rare moment of racial progress that’s equally embraced by a vast majority of White and Black Americans. But it also begs a question that’s rarely, if ever, asked:
Why have Americans reached a consensus on interracial marriage when other racial issues, like affirmative action and integration, remain fiercely contested?
Interracial marriage is viewed differently than other racial issues
That question has taken on new urgency because interracial marriage is back in the news. People across the globe recently celebrated “Loving Day,” the 55th anniversary of the Loving decision, which declared prohibitions on interracial marriage unconstitutional.
A recent Supreme Court decision also raised new questions about interracial marriage. Some legal experts warn the same legal rationale the high court’s conservative majority recently used to overturn Roe v. Wade in its Dobbs decision could be applied to overturn Loving v. Virginia.
Any concerns about the durability of interracial marriage, though, may seem far-fetched to some because it’s such an entrenched part of American life.
There was a time when interracial couples and their children had to hide in shame. Not anymore.
When Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in last week as the first Black female justice on the Supreme Court, she did so while standing next to her husband, who is White. His race was not even noted in the stories on her swearing-in.
So how did such an enormous shift in acceptance occur?
Funderburg says the difference between attitudes about interracial marriage and other racial issues like voting rights is one word: proximity.
“You can dehumanize people when they are just abstract concepts to you,” she says. “Affirmative action, voting rights—these are issues that you can depersonalize. But you can’t depersonalize your cousin’s husband at the barbecue who asks you to pass the ketchup. It’s hard to dismiss or take a stance against love when it’s in your face.”
In one of his most famous studies, Allport conducted surveys of White soldiers who fought alongside Black soldiers during World War II. He discovered that in companies with both Black and White platoons, White soldiers disliked Black people far less than did White soldiers who served in segregated units.
But Allport found it was not enough for Whites and non-Whites to simply know one another. Other conditions also had to be met, such as personal interaction, equal status and both groups sharing common goals. Allport’s findings, which were replicated with civilians in varying settings, proved that hatred and racism stem from lack of contact—or physical proximity.
Why many White Americans aren’t threatened by interracial unions
There could be another reason why so many White Americans now accept marriage between Black and White people: They don’t perceive it as a threat to their status or economic well-being, one scholar says.
Wasow says interracial marriage is more widely accepted by White people now because many don’t perceive it as a threat to their economic or political power.
A similar dynamic takes place in public schools. If more than a small number of Black students enroll in a school, many White parents withdraw their children, fearing they will receive an inferior education or start making lower test scores.
“Granting legal equality is often easier to achieve than issues that try to get at material or political equality, where there is something quite valuable that is being allocated and people feel not just a loss of some symbol but a genuine sense of a loss of power, or a threat to their material well-being,” Wasow says.
An issue like affirmative action is a prime example of that dynamic, he says.
“Affirmative action is a more demanding ask of a white majority than something like interracial marriage because there’s no sense of, if these people get married, I’m denying an opportunity to myself,” Wasow says. “Granting people the legal right to marry has no material cost to people who had that right but were denying it to others.
“There’s a sense of status loss and a change in social order, but if people of different races couldn’t get married before and now they can, the person who is a bigot doesn’t have their wealth threatened in any meaningful way.”
Even so, many challenges remain for interracial couples
Although interracial couples are more common in the US today, challenges remain for them and their children.
“I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Loving,” she says, referring to the Supreme Court decision which paved the way for her parents to marry. “But the world didn’t magically accept interracial couples on June 12, 1967, when the case was decided,” Wells says. “There are still people who believe we shouldn’t be here.”
After she married recently, Wells posted a picture on Facebook of her father walking her down the aisle. A White Facebook user, apparently assuming she was White and her father was her husband, posted: “That is sick. Going to be one of these women with a half breed baby and divorced and trying to find probably another white person.”
Wells says she constantly runs into strangers who take liberties to touch her hair or ask her intrusive questions about her racial identity.
“It’s just this constant thing — they want to put you in a box,” she says. “They want to be able to figure out who you are and where you come from.”
“If I had a book like this when I was a kid, it would have made some of those conversations with my parents a little bit easier,” she says.
A question no poll has answered
Despite the experiences of people like Wells, it’s hard not to be encouraged by the dramatic shift in public opinion on interracial marriage. Not long ago, a Black man could get lynched for flirting with a White woman in public. Today few raise eyebrows at interracial couples.
Could the same dynamic that occurred with interracial marriage shift to other racial issues?
Funderburg, the author, asks similar questions after looking at the recent Gallup poll and considering recent Supreme Court decisions that have gutted the Voting Rights Act and weakened gun control laws.
“I do think this statistic points to the power of personal experience to dissolve prejudice and to dismantle hate,” she says. “But we’re looking at this statistic right now in an era when the number of rights that I thought were solid and sacred are being reversed. That drive for a draconian dismantling of a whole range of civil rights is underway in so many realms of America.”
This is a question that no contemporary poll has answered.
While more White Americans are now welcoming Black people into their families, many are still not willing to accept them in their neighborhoods or in their public schools.
As long as there is little contact between White and non-White Americans in those settings, the power of personal experience to dissolve prejudice will remain moot. Unless there are more personal relationships between White people, Black people and others in those spaces, we will continue to live with a paradox spawned by the Loving decision:
Americans’ personal lives are more integrated than ever. But in the public realm — when it comes to issues like political power, housing and education — some White Americans are still living by the motto that guided their predecessors in the era before the Loving decision:
“No race-mixing allowed.”