America's shifting racial attitudes

After his election, Barack Obama was talking about choosing a pet for his daughters. "Obviously," he noted, "a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me." The president-elect's "offhanded remark indicates his different approach to race," reported the...

After his election, Barack Obama was talking about choosing a pet for his daughters. "Obviously," he noted, "a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me." The president-elect's "offhanded remark indicates his different approach to race," reported the Associated Press. During Obama's term, "the country is likely to hear more about race from the White House -- and from the perspective of a black man -- than it ever has before."

That has not happened, in part because other pressing issues have dominated Obama's agenda -- jobs, health, oil, war. But as new census data reveals, the president's personal story embodies a marked change in the way Americans act and think about race.

Who the president is might be more important than what he says.

In 1961, when Obama's Kansas-born mother married an immigrant from Kenya, fewer than one in 1,000 new marriages resembled theirs -- a black-white pairing. By the year Obama was elected, the rate had dropped to one in 60.

But for all marriages in 2008, 14.6 percent -- one in seven -- reflected a partnership across racial or ethnic lines. (The Pew Research Center, which analyzed the census data, defines Hispanics as an ethnic group because they can be of any race.)


These marriages are producing "mutts" like the president, and a revolution in public attitudes. Pew reports that 63 percent of Americans would be "fine" if a relative married a person of a different race. And 83 percent said it was "OK for whites and blacks to date each other." That represents a sharp shift from 1987, when fewer than half approved of interracial romance.

The reason comes down to one word: experience. One in three adults now has a relative married to someone of a different race, including us. (Our family includes black and Chinese partners.) When the daughter of old friends recently celebrated her bat mitzvah (the Jewish coming-of-age ritual), a family gathered on the altar included an Asian-born aunt.

Steve attended a wedding last winter between a former student, the child of Indian immigrants, and an Irish Catholic. Two flower girls preceded the bride down the aisle, young relatives of the couple. The Irish child was tall, pale and timid; the Indian short, dark and peppery. It was a very American scene.

Growing comfortable with intermarriage is a public as well as a private experience. The likely Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina, Nikki Haley, was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa; her parents are Sikh immigrants from India, and her husband is a white Methodist she met in college. Their two children are, well, mutts.

Pew reports that this dramatic change in public attitudes "has been driven in part by the weakening of longstanding cultural taboos against intermarriage." This is particularly true among the young. About 13 percent of all couples under 25 have "married out" compared to 3 percent for those over 75.

The other driving factor is immigration. Vast tides of newcomers, primarily from Asia and Central America, have deepened the pool of possible mates. And leaving home can be a liberating journey, particularly for young women, who are far freer in America to shake off old-world traditions that limit their freedom of choice in many areas, including marriage.

For the paperback version of his recent book, "From Every End of This Earth," Steve interviewed Anya Plana, an immigrant from the Philippines, who taught school in Texas, moved to Washington, and married a white lawyer of German, Irish and French-Canadian stock.

"It's easier to date here -- the Philippines are so small, and America is so big," Anya said. "In a way, it was a reinvention of myself when I came here. I wanted to be free."


Children of immigrants are even more likely to marry out than their parents. Amanda Albert's family came from Jamaica and settled in the Bronx. She had a child with her Jamaican boyfriend before moving to the Connecticut suburbs with her mother and meeting Thomas, a white neighbor. Amanda has defied the disapproval of friends and family to nurture her relationship with Thomas.

"Real love is not just a relationship that looks right," she said. "Lots of times people look good on paper and don't fit. Thomas is a white boy with a Subaru, and I'm a black girl with a car seat. We're a mismatched mess, and we make it work."

Day by day, family by family, these "mismatched messes" are producing mutts like the president and changing American attitudes toward race.

Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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