Stir It Up: Race and Newlywed Marriages

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by Oliver Wang


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I attended a wedding this past weekend, the third one this summer. It was a "mixed" wedding of sorts since the bride was half-White, half-Chicano and her husband was "full" Chicano. Their reception had a light Mexican theme to it, including a table of homemade aqua frescas, the Latin Gents band, and the catering was by CaCao, an Eagle Rock "Mexicatessen."

Every wedding I've been to this summer has featured some kind of ethnic theme given the mix of couples. The last one was between a former student of mine (Chinese) and his longtime girlfriend (Filipino); their caterer was a Filipino BBQ joint and during the cocktail hour, they had Chinese-style egg-rolls (sadly, no lumpia though). The wedding previous to that were friends of my wife: groom = Cambodian, bride = White. Their caterers were strictly L.A. carnivore, but they did include a trio of traditional Cambodian wedding ceremonies (reduced from at least triple the number, normally spread over several days), my daughter's favorite being when people threw wheat kernels at the couple.

In fact, in prepping for this column, I asked my wife when was the last time we attended a wedding that wasn't mixed and we couldn't remember. Since our own wedding in 2005 (2nd generation Chinese American/4th generation Japanese American), we've attended about 10 more, with some of the combinations being White/Chinese (old roommate), Chinese/Filipino (my cousin), and Japanese/Chinese (my wife's cousin). Last year, I DJed a wedding for a friend-of-a-friend: Indian/White.

Given all this, I was more than mildly surprised to learn in this new Pew Research Center report[1] that of all the current marriages in America, only 8 percent are mixed. Amongst "new" marriages (based on 2008 and 2009 data), the number almost doubles, to 14.6 percent, but that's still relatively small.

There's a few huge caveats we need to acknowledge right off the bat. First of all, this tracks marriages, not dating patterns (the former being much easier to document). Second, it's only looking at heterosexual marriages (a limitation that I hope will be remedied by 2020, if not sooner). Third, any discussion of "outmarrying" or "mixed marriage" rests on the slippery language of race and ethnicity and the more you try to untangle our classifications, the more you realize just how arbitrary and nonsensical many of these distinctions are.

For example, as anyone who filled out their 2010 Census might have observed, "Hispanic/Latino" is not a race (no doubt, many on both sides of the current immigration debate might contest this) but an "ethnicity" and they are the only group who receive "ethnicity status" on the Census. Regardless, the Pew's data (which uses Census categories) classifies marriages between "Hispanic Whites" and "non-Hispanic Whites" as a form of "outmarrying."

However, though none of the Census' Asian groups - Chinese, Korean, Filipino, etc. - are classified as ethnicities, the Pew's data treat them as belonging to the same race. Therefore, the Chinese/Filipino wedding I attended or my own marriage would be listed as intra-racial pairings, not an inter-racial ones. Suffice to say, the science of measuring race/ethnicity and marriage requires one to just accept certain standards even if they don't make much sense.[2]

This disclaimer out of the way, let's dig into the Pew findings. There's much to chew on here so let me just highlight a few points:

1) Much to my surprise, the group least likely to outmarry = White (less than 10 percent of new marriages). Of course, inter-ethnic marriages aren't tracked (sorry Chelsea/Marc) but given the number of inter-racial marriages I've been to involving a White spouse, I assumed the percentage would be higher. It actually makes more sense when you look at it from the other direction: for all racial groups who outmarry, their partners are predominantly White, ranging from roughly 60 percent for African Americans, ~73 percent for Asian Americans, and ~80 percent for Hispanics. Demographically, this makes sense: Whites are the most numerous amongst American groups so in terms of likelihood of social contact, the odds are in their favor. (Not everyone would necessarily agree that these trends are purely statistical however but we can get to that later).

Of the small minority of Whites who do outmarry, nearly half of their preferred partners are Latino. Again, based on demographics this makes sense, though if one adjusted for relative populations, it's more striking that 27 percent of White men who outmarry, do so with Asian women, who only constitute about 5 percent of the marriage pool, compared to Latinos, who hover around 15 percent.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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