By Ellen McGirt
May 18, 2017

Let’s talk about love. Here’s a story for you:

I couldn’t have been more than nine, and I was enjoying a rare night out with my parents at Frank’s Restaurant on 125th Street, in Harlem. We tended to keep a low profile as a mixed-race family in the 1960s. We always got a lot of attention and it made my father very nervous. But that night, attention found us.

While we were eating, some white police officers burst in and grabbed a black man – no idea whether they’d chased him in, or whether he was eating there – and began wrestling him past the tank of live lobsters and through the dining room towards the door. Somehow the scuffle stalled out next to our table, with cops pointing wildly, unsure where to go next. In the awkward moments that followed, the man, calm and in handcuffs, smiled at me and leaned over to whisper in my ear. Flattered by the attention and disarmed by his poise, I did what he said to do. “Daddy,” I said a little too brightly, “take me back to Africa.” My white mother’s eyes grew wide and my black father’s face melted into a familiar anger. The handcuffed man winked and laughed, then was gone.

So, I knew early on that mixed-race marriages could be tough.

I was reminded of this story when a new report from Pew Research Center hit my inbox today, examining the rates of mixed-race marriages in the U.S. The Africa episode would have occurred just a few years after Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that made interracial marriage legal. Back then, only about 3% of newlyweds were married to someone of a different race. But Pew’s new analysis of U.S. Census data shows that some 17% of newlyweds in 2015 were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity, a five-fold increase.

But digging into the numbers shows profound, local variances that can’t always be explained by homogeneity, or lack thereof. The metropolitan areas most likely to have mixed-race newlyweds are Honolulu, HI at 42%, Las Vegas, NV with 31% and Santa Barbara, CA, at 30%. According to Pew, “[t]hese areas are all relatively diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, and this diversity likely contributes to the high intermarriage rates by creating a diverse pool of potential spouses.” These areas also tend to have higher AAPI and non-black Hispanic populations rounding out the mix.

On the other end, low rates found in majority white places like Asheville, NC and Youngstown, OH make some sort of sense, at just 3% and 4% respectively. But there is no easy answer for places like Jackson, MS, (3%) and Birmingham, AL (8%), two areas rich with racial diversity but also long, specific histories of deep racial tension, much of it now codified into law and custom. (My former colleague Roy Johnson has just published an important column that touches on many of ongoing race-based issues in Alabama.)

It’s hard to believe that love blooms easily in places that are still fighting over Civil War monuments. But check out Pew’s interactive map here, and see how race-crossed lovers are faring in your zip code.

Pew finds that attitudes make a difference. “Some 13% of adults in the South say that more interracial marriage is a bad thing for society, and 11% of those living in the Midwest, where Youngstown is located, say the same.” That’s roughly three times as many people than is found in the West and Northeast.

I didn’t think that my family was a bad thing for society when I made my bold request to be taken back to the motherland, though I always understood that other people often did. And still do. But I did like to think that I’d had a young brush with Black Pride greatness that night at Frank’s. And that the man was really Huey Newton come to town, or that James Baldwin was outside the restaurant documenting a righteous melee that had spilled inside. But now I think he was probably just an ordinary man, unable or unwilling to find his way in a world that was prepared to think the worst of him and had organized itself accordingly. He wasn’t going down without a little lip. Or maybe he just wanted to be seen.

After a year of doing this work with all of you, I have developed a profound belief that societies can only improve with the best, everyday efforts of ordinary people who are prepared to think differently about themselves and each other, and then reorganize their communities, companies, and even families, accordingly. And for that, a little bit of love can go a long way.

And for anyone getting married this spring, a million mazels your way.


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