NEW YORK. — New York--The Census Bureau reported the other day than in the year 1990, more than 100,000 white people married black people in the United States. That was seen as quite something, three times as many black-white marriages as there were in 1970, and it was duly noted on the front page of the New York Times.
I suppose that constitutes progress, an affirmation of a bit more tolerance, but not all that much in a nation of 250 million. Whites and blacks have lived together here for more than 300 years, at least 10 generations, and black-white marriages count for only four out of each thousand marriages -- 0.04 percent. In comparison, in their first generation as Americans, more than half (about 55 percent) of the children of Asian immigrants marry outside their own race.
''That's the great touchstone,'' wrote Alexis de Tocqueville of intermarriage in ''Democracy in America'' -- that was in 1831. ''One must always come to the question of how marriages are made. That's the bottom of the matter. An equality resulting from necessity, courtesy or politics may exist on the surface and deceive the eye. But when one wishes to practice this equality in the intermarriage of families, then one puts one's finger on the sore.''
Has anything, at the bottom of the matter, really changed in 160 years? I don't think so. White Americans, polite and politic though we may be, are fundamentally unwilling to share their lives with black Americans.
We have, it is true, progressed greatly in terms of the law and public behavior regarding race relations. It was no small thing to see across the front page of newspapers a few weeks ago the photographs of two black men -- Clarence Thomas and Douglas Wilder -- and read that one, a Court of Appeals judge, was being confirmed for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the other, governor of Virginia, was announcing his candidacy for president.
But those are public things -- separate but equal at best -- and marriage is private. And even in private answers to public questions, more than 20 percent of whites polled by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago say that they believe interracial marriages should be against the law. (They were illegal in many states into the early 1970s.)
The negative images of marriage and sex between the races were so great 30 years ago that President Kennedy effectively barred the press from a reception for civil-rights leaders on Lincoln's Birthday in 1963. Kennedy did that because he was afraid of what it would do to his re-election chances if photographers got a picture of the entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. with his white wife, a Swedish actress named Mai Britt, holding hands in the White House.
Marriage in America over the years is a great story, a penetrating social history of the country. For more than two centuries, men married the women available, or vice versa -- the boy and girl next door, or at church or down the road. In fact, they often married two or three or even four of them -- reading the headstones in a New England cemetery tells over and over again the sad story of young women dying in childbirth.
The patterns of love and marriage, the latter far more important than the former because a family was the smallest economically viable unit in an agricultural society, were not that much different than the more-or-less arranged marriages of Asian villages.
World War II changed that. Men were moved around and saw a larger world, and they came home to one of the most revolutionary and democratizing of national experiences, the GI Bill of Rights. Uncle Sam rewarded veterans with free college educations -- as American soldiers of other times were once rewarded with free land in the West -- and young men met different women, rich and poor and in-between, from other places, other classes, other religions.
Those postwar marriages created the America and the Americans we know today. The wedding pages of newspapers often tell the story of the country better than the front pages. Americans marry now for love and aspiration, defining or finding themselves at the altar. The Protestant son of a New York banker marrying a nice Jewish girl from Dallas, then both of them career-hopping to Seattle, is a little different from the world I saw growing up in Jersey City, where an Irish boy and an Italian girl could create a parish crisis by going to the movies together.
It's a better world by far than the good old days, I think. Too bad black Americans are still not allowed in it.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.