Race

Love: Still Not Colorblind

February 22, 2012

Multiple Pages
Love: Still Not Colorblind

Has the gender gap in interracial relationships changed over the decades? 

As an urbanite in the 1980s and 1990s in LA and Chicago, it was hard not to notice trends among interracial couples. Black/white couples typically featured a black man with a white woman. But among white/East Asian pairs, I saw far more white men than white women. 

This gender gap struck me as interesting, yet seemingly nobody had written about it. Most writers on interracial sexual attraction prefer to moralize rather than scrutinize the statistics. So while enduring chemotherapy in 1997, I puttered for a couple of hours per day on an essay I titled “Is Love Colorblind?” Assuming this might be the last article I’d ever write, I tried to make it good.

Data on interracial marriages from the 1990 Census confirmed the obvious. In 1990, black-husband/white-wife couples (such as O. J. and Nicole Simpson) were 2.5x as numerous as white-husband/black-wife couples (e.g., David Bowie and Iman). In contrast, white-husband/Asian-wife marriages (e.g., Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn) were a mirror image 2.5x as common as Asian-husband/white-wife combinations (such as Bruce Lee and Linda Emery).

“Most writers on interracial sexual attraction prefer to moralize rather than scrutinize the statistics.”

The chief reason for this struck me as “differences in perceived sexual attractiveness”—that on average, blacks were seen as more masculine than East Asians. This pattern can be seen in the two interracial marriages of Obama’s mother. While losing interest in her good-provider Indonesian second husband, she still carried a torch for the Kenyan first husband who had run off on her.

Fifteen years later, the cancer is gone (knock on wood), but I don’t get out as much as I used to. Therefore, I was pleased to see a new Pew Research Center report, The Rise of Intermarriage, quantifying interracial newlyweds in 2010. Today, when NBA player Jeremy Lin is relentlessly praised for “shattering stereotypes,” have these statistical disparities persisted?

More or less.

Much has changed, though. Except among college graduates, marriage is in decline. Of all babies born to women under thirty, 53 percent are now illegitimate. People who bother getting married these days tend to be more upscale than in the past.

Methodologically, this Pew 2010 analysis makes for an apples-to-pears comparison with my 1990 numbers. For instance, while I looked at the gender gap among blacks and Asians marrying whites, Pew reports the gender gap among blacks and Asians marrying anybody outside their race.

 

Keeping those caveats in mind, Pew’s gender gap for blacks in interracial weddings in 2010 still winds up the same 2.5x as I saw for 1990.

In Britain, the black-white marriage gender gap is smaller than in the US. It was reported at 1.4x in 1991 and 1.5x recently. This suggests that American culture is more masculinizing than British culture. In the interracial mating market, perhaps our cult of black machismo gives advantages to African American men while disadvantaging their sisters.

For Asians who wed interracially in 2010, the ratio of Asian brides over Asian grooms was 2.2x, down slightly from the 2.5x I saw in 1990 marriages.

One change over the decades is that South Asians, who tend to hoard their womenfolk, make up a much larger share of all Asians than 20 years ago.

Still, long-term trends appear hopeful for Asian-American men. The gender gap most afflicts Asian immigrant men, while among Asians born in the US it was only 1.34x in 2010. Being born in America appears to be masculinizing for East Asians, which increases their odds of snagging a wife.

Using a Census Bureau survey of one percent of the population, Pew fills in some new demographic details. Over the last 30 years, white/Asian couples have become increasingly upscale in educational levels. In contrast, black/white marriages have headed down-market.

Back in 1980 a noticeable fraction of white-husband/Asian-wife couples were veterans with war brides, so only 17 percent of white husbands in white/Asian marriages then had college degrees. By the time I was at UCLA in the early 1980s, though, white/Asian couples were becoming an upper-middle-class Californian cliché. Today, 41 percent of white husbands with Asian wives have college diplomas.

Not surprisingly, white-husband/black-wife interracial couples tend to be better educated and have a higher income than black-husband/white-wife couples. Back in the day, a remarkable fraction of the white guys I saw with black girls had professorial beards, which are handy for covering up a jawline that is less than turbocharged by testosterone. In 1980, one-third of white men with black wives had college degrees, but that recently fell to 22 percent. And black-husband/white-wife couples are significantly less educated.

Although American commentators frequently praise interracial marriage as a cure for inequality, these trends—plus Latin America’s long experience—suggest that American society’s upper reaches will become increasingly Eurasian and the lower reaches increasingly mulatto.

 

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