Immigration played a key role in unprecedented declines in interracial and inter-ethnic marriage in the United States during the 1990s, according to a new sociological study.
The findings, published in “Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage,” suggest that the growing number of Hispanic and Asian immigrants to the United States has led to more marriages within these groups, and fewer marriages between members of these groups and whites.
“These declines in intermarriages are a significant departure from past trends,” said Zhenchao Qian, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University. “The decline reflects the growth in the immigrant population during the 90s; more native-born Asian Americans and Hispanics are marrying their foreign-born counterparts.”
The study also found that interracial marriages involving African Americans increased significantly during the 1990s, but still continued to lag far behind other minorities.
Qian conducted the study with Daniel Lichter, a professor at Cornell University. Their results appear in the February 2007 issue of the American Sociological Review, published by the 101-year-old American Sociological Association.
The researchers studied U.S. census data from 1990 and 2000. They examined married couples between the ages of 20 to 34 who identified themselves as whites, African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, Hispanics, or some combination of these groups. Interracial and inter-ethnic marriages began to increase in the 1970s and continued to grow through the 1980s, Qian said. Almost all such marriages are between whites and minorities; very few marriages occur between people of different minority groups. But the rate of intermarriages began declining in the 1990s, particularly those involving whites and Asian Americans or Hispanics. This study was designed in part to find out why.
One theory had been that the rise of cohabitation was the cause of the decline, and that fewer interracial couples were marrying because they were more likely to be living together outside of marriage. However, this study found that is not the case, Qian said.
“Our results showed that recent increases in cohabitation have gone hand-in-hand with increasing shares of interracial marriages,” he said. For example, with African American men, intermarriages increased by about three-quarters (from 8.3 percent to 14.9 percent) over the 1990s, while interracial cohabitation rates grew by about one half (from 14.7 to 21.9 percent).
“Interracial couples choosing to cohabitate have not siphoned off couples who would have otherwise married,” Qian said. “If you look at changes in the 1990s, the bigger picture is really immigration, especially for Asian Americans and Hispanics. Those are the groups that had the largest influx of immigrants during the 90s.”
The study suggests Hispanic and Asian immigrants are likely to marry among themselves. In addition, more native-born minorities are selecting marriage partners from the growing pool of immigrants.
The result is that the number of native-born Hispanic men in intermarriages with whites declined by nearly 4 percentage points between 1990 and 2000—from 35.3 percent to 31.9 percent. The number of native-born Asian American men in intermarriages declined from 50.2 to 45.8 percent.
Qian said it is impossible to say if intermarriage trends found in this study will continue.
“It is unclear whether the 1990s represents a short-term pause in the decades-long upward trend in marital assimilation, or whether it is the beginning of a new racial divide,” he said.
“It is possible that the continuing influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America may continue to slow intermarriage, especially if new groups are segregated from the majority white population and native-born minorities.”
The abstract for “Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage” may be read here. The complete article may also be purchased ($20 plus tax) at the abstract’s URL.