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Color Solidifies in Melting Pot

Immigrants tend not to marry other minorities, says study

FRIDAY, Sept. 21, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Immigrants are marrying each other rather than people already living in the United States, and that's changing the immigration experience, say demographers who have studied this trend.

At the turn of the last century, when most immigrants to the United States came from Europe, the truest test of assimilation was marriage. When an Italian-American woman married an Irish-American man, for instance, their similarities in education, income and neighborhood often outweighed their differences.

For today's immigrants, the experience is very different. Researchers Daniel Lichter, professor of sociology at Ohio State University, and Zhenchao Qian, associate professor at Arizona State University, say the assimilation of current immigrants is much slower because they aren't marrying outside their racial group and are even unlikely to marry previous immigrants of the same origin.

Their study, published in a recent issue of the journal Social Science Research, is based on the 1990 census and concludes that less than 5 percent of all marriages in this country are interracial. The researchers also found that American-born minorities follow the same low pattern of interracial marriage as new immigrants. But for those native born who do marry outside their race, the likeliest combinations are:

  • Latinos marrying whites more than Asians or blacks,
  • Asians marrying whites more than Latinos or blacks,
  • Blacks marrying Latinos more than whites or Asians.

Quian says, "Skin color is still very important. African-Americans are the least likely to be interracially married; light-skinned Latinos are more likely to be interracially married than dark-skinned ones."

A similar study with similar conclusions was done a year ago by University of Michigan researchers. David R. Harris, assistant professor of sociology, says the numbers of interracially intimate relationships would be much higher if couples who just live together instead of marrying were counted.

"Cohabitations are not a trivial share of young people's unions," Harris says. "Among the four racial groups we examined, about one in six unions is a cohabitation. Just over 16 percent of unions for Asians, Latinos and whites are cohabitations, and more than 25 percent of unions for blacks. So focusing exclusively on interracial marriages, as most research has done, seriously underestimates the extent of intimate contact between the races."

Qian acknowledges there are various ways to look at this issue, but says his study focused on marriage because it was a practical way to compare previous experience.

When Qian and Lichter first began their study, they assumed there would be a continuum of assimilation. That is, first-generation immigrants would marry within their racial or cultural group, but second-generation would be wider ranging in their search for partners. But their research showed that isn't the case with current immigrants. Lichter says, "They may assimilate with regard to residential or employment patterns, but racial lines remain a barrier to marriage, which is viewed as the ultimate step toward assimilation."

So, with many of today's immigrant groups holding tenaciously to both their cultural experience and their language, is assimilation really a worthy goal? Lichter has no authoritative answer. "Different people have different feelings about whether the blurring of cultural experience is a good thing or not and whether we should celebrate diversity or become one giant melting pot," he says.

He says skin color has proved to be the most significant barrier to black people who have lower levels of education, which, in turn, leads to lower economic status. That reduces the likelihood that they will marry into racial or cultural groups that have achieved higher status, he says.

"Our social map will be shaped by whether race persists as a significant barrier to marriage with native whites, or if it diminishes in importance, leading to a blurring of cultural boundaries," Lichter says.

Most immigrants today come from Asia and Latin America, says Lichter.

What To Do

If you're wrestling with the problems of interracial marriage, try these links from The new study indicates the trend toward assimilation, cited by this 1998 Washington Post story, may have slowed.

And if you think that love can conquer all, read this first-person account of a Japanese man who married a British woman.

SOURCES: Interviews with Daniel T. Lichter, Ph.D., Robert F. Lazarus Professor in Population Studies, Ohio State University, Columbus; Zhenchao Qian, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology, Arizona State University, Tempe; David R. Harris, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; June 2001 Social Science Research
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