Interracial Brooklyn

Interracial Brooklyn

Brooklyn Historical Society
Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations
September 2012

Michael J. Rosenfeld, Associate Professor of Sociology
Stanford University

Intermarriage has been rising in the United States steadily since about 1960. Before 1960 there were so few interracial marriages in the United States that Interraciality was really invisible. Prior to 1960, the idea of marrying someone from another race in the US was so unusual that social pressure, family pressure, and in some states the law made such marriages impossible.

So what explains the rise in interracial marriage?

One answer is that the law changed. In 1967, the US Supreme Court, in a brief but powerful and unanimous decision (Loving v. Virginia), struck down all the state laws that had made interracial marriage illegal. Overnight, Americans had the right to marry anyone from the opposite sex regardless of race. New York, however, was one of the states that had never had laws against interracial marriage. Take a look at this map of US states to see which states had laws against interracial marriage and when.

In the above graph (click to enlarge), you can see that intermarriage had a similar rise in the US, in Brooklyn, and in New York, starting near zero, and peaking at between 5% and 7% of all marriages in 2010. The trajectory of interracial marriage was so similar in Brooklyn and in the US as a whole that the blue US line is hidden underneath the green Brooklyn line in parts of the graph above. Since interracial marriage was always legal in Brooklyn but often illegal in the rest of the US before 1967, something other than the law (which never changed in Brooklyn) must explain the rise of intermarriage.

Even though interracial marriage has risen a great deal, Americans and Brooklynites still have a strong tendency to marry people from their own racial group…

…What explains the rise of Intermarriage?

  • The US had a big immigration reform in 1965, which led to a sharp rise in immigration from Asia and Latin America. As the US population became more racially diverse, there was more opportunity for Americans to meet (and fall in love with) people from other races. Immigrant destinations like New York City tend to have more intermarriage as a result of having more racial diversity.
  • The age at first marriage has been steadily rising since the 1960s. Age at first marriage in the US is now 27 or 28 years of age. In the past, age of first marriage was typically about 21 years. The later age at first marriage means that young people are more likely to travel away from home before they marry. Travel away from home increases the chances of meeting (and falling in love with) someone who is different from you.
  • Attitudes have changed. Interracial marriage is not very controversial for people who were raised in the post- Civil Rights and post- Loving v. Virginia era. As interracial marriage has become more common and more visible, more Americans have gotten used to the idea that interracial couples are part of the panorama of American families. Opposition within families to intermarriage has declined, but has not disappeared…

…In order to figure out how many interracial couples there are, one must first divide people into separate and mutually exclusive racial/ethnic categories. In dividing people into mutually exclusive racial/ethnic categories, one immediately confronts a series of definition problems that have no unique solution.

The fact is that race exists in America only because we Americans believe in race and invest the categories with meaning…

Read the entire article here.

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