Do barriers to interracial marriage still exist?

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Do barriers to interracial marriage still exist? Despite recent media reports that we are living in a “post-racial world” as the face of the American family changes, the numbers do not lie when showing that there is still resistance to black/white relationships.

A recent report by the United States Census Bureau reveals that interracial marriage is at an all time high, up 28 percent from the year 2000. In 2010, 5.3 million couples reported themselves as interracial — a significant increase from 4 million in 2000. Of these interracial couples in the latest report, the majority were white/Hispanic (38 percent) and white/Asian (14 percent), comprising over half of the marriages classified as mixed.

Although black/white has increased since the 2000 census, it is still relatively rare. Out of 56 million married households in 2010, about 422,000 are between blacks and whites. When compared with all interracial married couples, this number is much lower at 7.9 percent, a slight increase from 7.1 percent in 2000.

Formally, all prohibitions on black/white interracial marriage have been removed. The Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional in the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia. This case made it legal for people to marry the person of their own choosing, regardless of race. No state government can block an interracial marriage after the ruling, the case determined.

Hearts did not change overnight, however. Some states did not change their laws after the ruling, even though they could not have been enforced. South Carolina and Alabama did not officially amend their laws until 1998 and 2000, respectively, and not without resistance. In 2009, Keith Bardwell, a Justice of the Peace in Louisiana, refused to perform the marriage of a black man and white woman. And just last year, a church in Kentucky banned interracial couples from membership.

In our collective memory, interracial marriage has only existed for 45 years. Although it was legal in some states before 1967, only 9 states never enacted such laws. Even in those states where it was legal, people stayed within their own groups.

Maybe it’s really “not about race at all,” as the common phrase goes. It could be a number of factors: self-selection, geography, education, wealth, proximity, self-affirmation, and most importantly, love and attraction.

But these informal factors add up, and result in a stagnation of interracial marriage between blacks and whites. Even though there is no more black letter law Jim Crow, Racial Integrity Act, or poll tax, segregation persists at the most intimate level: the family. Although these laws are long gone, they still affect us today.

There is a difference between governance by formal law and regulation by informal norms. As law professor Bennett Capers has termed it, “white letter law” is invisible but still powerful. Black letter law is found in statutes, codes, legislation, and court cases — it is written in the books and is easy to locate. White letter law, on the other hand, is unwritten and invisible.

How is this informal control executed? Dirty looks on the subway or at the mall. Bringing separate checks to dining couples. Catcalls in the park. Assuming the black partner is a servant or employee. Disapproving relatives, friends, and coworkers. These are all reminders of a lingering taboo when blacks and whites make their relationships public.

People date and marry with friends and family in mind. Community reprisal could be a big factor, as blacks and whites may fear reactions from their home communities about their choice of partner. Their personal decision is not so individual — it becomes something larger.

It’s easy to say “get over it” or “race shouldn’t matter,” but that overlooks the everyday experiences and continuing problems of black/white couples. A long history of interracial tension has existed between blacks and whites, and memories run deep, to say the least. Of course, offending couples won’t be thrown in jail by their governments, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t be prosecuted by their communities.