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Biracial couples report greater tolerance

U.S. survey finds acceptance weakest among whites

Sunday, July 08, 2001

By Darryl Fears and Claudia Deane, The Washington Post

Thirty-four years after the Supreme Court struck down state laws that outlawed interracial marriage, biracial couples report widespread tolerance and even acceptance of their relationships, according to a national survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

The overwhelming majority of couples said they have introduced their partners to accepting parents and family members, and felt comfortable speaking openly about their relationships. More said they believe their children are more advantaged than disadvantaged by having parents of different races.

"What the survey figures imply ... is that interracial marriages and their approval is increasing terribly fast," said Frank Bean, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine. "If you have hangups about interracial marriage, get over it. The train's left the station."

But the ride isn't comfortable for everyone. Nearly half of black-white couples -- significantly more than Latino-white or Asian-white partners -- said they believe marrying someone of a different race makes marriage harder. Two-thirds of couples in black-white partnerships said at least one set of parents objected to their union at its start. And a companion survey of racial attitudes found that nearly half of whites -- more than any other group -- believe it is better for people to marry someone of their own race.

For the couples survey, 540 adults who reported being married to, or living with, someone of a different race were randomly selected and interviewed by telephone from March 29 to May 20. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 6 percentage points.

Most participants fell within four groups: white, black, Asian-Pacific Islander and Latino. Latinos can be of any race, but for this survey, Latinos who described themselves as being part of an interracial couple with a white, black or Asian were included in the sample.

There were couples such as Ann Maloka and her husband, Pierre, a mixed-race black man who said he has found only acceptance of him and his Greek wife in their Chicago neighborhood. But things were far different for his parents.

His mother, Fran Maloka, who is white, worried constantly after marrying her African husband, Pierre, in the Belgian Congo 42 years ago. Returning to her small home town in North Carolina, where marriages like hers were illegal, didn't seem like a good option.

"When we came to the states, I chose Chicago rather than North Carolina because I felt we could be more anonymous there," said Fran Maloka, 61. "My husband and I did not come to North Carolina and my home until 1972."

Black-white couples such as the Malokas say they're more likely to be ignored by rude waiters in restaurants and encounter ugly stares from passersby on sidewalks and shopping malls, according to the survey. That background hum of disapproval sometimes can pull couples apart.

"I remember when we first got to New Orleans," said Cindy Terry, 33, who is married to a black man in Bremerton, Wash. "We went to a local mall and we left because I felt uncomfortable. I'm not hating anyone, but it was primarily the African American women. I felt like we were aliens, just the stares, and you knew they were saying something under their breath."

Whites are most disapproving

But disapproval is highest in white communities -- 46 percent of those surveyed say it's better to marry within one's race. When white people do marry interracially, they're more likely to choose Latinos, nearly half of whom described themselves in the 2000 Census as both Hispanic and white.

About half the couples in the survey were white-Hispanic pairs. That compares with about 1 in 5 who were white-Asian, about 1 in 10 who were black-white, and another 1 in 10 who were white-American Indian.

"If race and ethnicity made no difference, then marriages would be random," said Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center. "Black Americans and Latinos both represent 12 percent of the population. The percentage of black-white marriages should be higher than Asian and equal to Latinos. There's more of a racial barrier to black-white marriage."

The Current Populations Survey released last week by the Census Bureau also shows that the majority of mixed-race marriages involve couples in which one partner is Latino. According to the survey, there are nearly 2 million couples in which one partner is of Hispanic origin and one is not. In comparison, there are about 700,000 white-Asian couples in the United States and about 450,000 black-white couples.

Smith and other experts said racial barriers probably explain the wide disparity in how comfortable couples in white-black and white-Latino relationships feel.

"Let's say you're white and you're involved in a relationship with a Latina, but she doesn't have many indigenous Indian characteristics," said David Harris, a University of Michigan sociologist. "People may say she's white like you, or Mediterranean, or they won't know what's going on. They fly under the radar."

Susan Acevedo of Bethlehem, Pa., said her friends and family had no idea that her husband was Puerto Rican before they married. "A lot of people, when I say my husband is Hispanic, say they thought he was Italian," said Acevedo, 31. "My parents love him dearly, but my father didn't know he was Puerto Rican until he liked him. I just didn't say anything. I think he assumed he was Italian."

Cynthia Villanueva, 39, who also has a Latino husband, said that when she shops with him in Orange Park, Fla., people often comment on how much her oldest daughter, Jessica, looks like her father. But Jessica is the biological daughter of Villanueva's first husband, who is white.

The difficulties encountered by white-black couples don't surprise sociologists, given the history of strained relations between those groups. What's more surprising is that three decades after the Supreme Court ended barriers to marriage between the races in the case of Virginia v. Loving, there have been few studies of how mixed-race couples go about their lives after breaking what Smith called "the last taboo."

A companion nationwide survey by The Post, the Kaiser Foundation and Harvard found that interracial dating is fairly widespread: About four in 10 Americans reported they had dated someone of another race, and more than two-thirds of those relationships were reported as "serious." These numbers are even higher for younger Americans.

Asian women and men, along with black men, were the most likely to report having dated members of other groups, according to the survey. White women and Latino women were the least likely to say they had romantic relationships with members of different racial groups; about one-third reported having done so.

The survey of racial attitudes was based on interviews with 1,709 randomly selected adults, conducted March 8 through April 22. The sample included the nation's three largest groups of ethnic and racial minorities -- 315 Latinos, 323 blacks and 254 Asians -- as well as 779 whites.

Black families more accepting

Falachia Allison once believed she would never date a white man. But then the young black woman met Joe Nastasi, 25, a former wide receiver for Pennsylvania State University, her alma mater.

"We had an instant attraction," said Allison, of State College, Pa. "Usually, when you go on a blind date, you kind of like them or you don't." She said she would have had hangups if Nastasi were a blond man with blue eyes. Instead, he's an Italian with nearly bronze skin.

"He's different. He has black friends. He doesn't believe that racism doesn't exist anymore, which makes him easier to talk to," she said.

"The first time I saw her, I liked her," Nastasi said. "I'm probably darker than her anyway. I'm like the easiest person to get along with. Maybe I look at things differently, in a more liberal sense."

That acceptance is more likely to be found in black families, according to the survey of racial attitudes. Eighty-six percent of black respondents said their families would welcome a white person into the fold -- 31 percentage points higher than the percentage of whites who said they would accept them. Black families were also more accepting of Latinos and Asians than those groups are of them.

About three-quarters of Latino families would warmly accept black people, who ranked somewhat below white people in their eyes. Among Asian families, 77 percent would welcome a new white member and 71 percent a Latino. Black people were somewhat less likely to be accepted, at 66 percent.

Yet the barriers fall yearly because people such as Villanueva are pushing them down. Her husband's Puerto Rican family "did have a problem" when he married her, a white woman, she said.

"They thought I couldn't learn anything about his background," she said. "They thought I couldn't cook. I proved them wrong. Now I'm on a pedestal. Higher than high, 19 years later. I'm still with him. He's my very best friend. We don't even shop separately."

In Vacaville, Calif., Walter Simon, 60, who is white, said his longtime marriage to his Mexican-Cuban wife "hasn't been easy." But the difficulty involves culture more than skin color.

"My wife doesn't like to speak English," he said. "Certain places where we lived, people were very racist. ... They had reservations about meeting her."

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