A marriage of black and white

July 09, 1996|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK -- Alexis de Tocqueville, the young Frenchman who would go on to write the best of books about Americans, traveled in the new United States at the beginning of the 1830s, and among things he said was this:

"The Indians die as they have lived, in isolation; but the fate of the Negroes is in a sense linked with that of the Europeans. The two races are bound one to the other without mingling; it is equally difficult for them to separate completely or to unite."

At a dinner in Boston, he sat next to a former president, John Quincy Adams. He asked what was the country's greatest problem. Race and slavery, Adams said: "That is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and the fears for the future."

Peter Deponceau, a prominent lawyer in Philadelphia and once an aide to George Washington, told Tocqueville: "I don't doubt that the blacks will eventually all become free. But I believe one day their race will disappear from our soil."

Equality's true measure

No wonder, then, that in his great work "Democracy in America," Tocqueville concluded that there were probably only three alternate fates awaiting the African Americans brought to the New World as slaves: annihilation in race war, deportation -- or intermarriage with whites.

"When one wishes to estimate the equality between different classes, 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."

Retracing in 1980 Tocqueville's travels with his notebooks, I checked intermarriage in Cincinnati, a frontier town in 1830. It was a great city when I got there, two-thirds white, one-third black.

Checking 400 weddings over five weeks, I found all sorts of intermarriage across classes and religions -- unions like the scholarship-boy son of a poor Jewish widow marrying the daughter of a Protestant banker.

More often than not, those brides and grooms went to high school or college together; many seemed to be marriages of shared ambitions. We marry the people we meet, and American patterns of girl-next-door marriage were shattered by the GI Bill and mass higher education and the new mobility of jet travel.

But in that sample 15 years ago, there were no interracial marriages.

A recent change

Now there are. A new study based on census data indicates that in 1993, more than 12 percent of new marriages by blacks were to white partners. That brings the overall total of black-white marriages to something like 500,000 out of the 57 million American married couples, according to the study directors, Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute and Timothy Sullivan of Southern Illinois University.

The number may sound small, but most of those half-million marriages are relatively recent. It is the 12 percent that is new and news, an astounding multiple of the 1 percent and 2 percent rates of the not-so-distant past.

Only 30 years ago, interracial marriage was not only uncommon; it was illegal in 20 states.

Of course. People marry people they meet.

American marriages between people of European, Hispanic and Asian descent are too common to discuss outside the family anymore -- to say nothing of the Irish-Italian marriages that could start mini-wars when I was growing up in Jersey City, N.J. Now rates of Asian-white intermarriage are as high as 50 percent in places such as California.

"The browning of America" is a cliche, probably created when the first settler married an Indian or the first Episcopalian married an Italian Catholic.

Contradictory volumes could be written about interracial social interaction showing, I am sure, that American racism is as virulent as ever, that diversity and multiculturalism are threatened, that the African Americans who marry whites have to live like whites, that there is less sexual contact between races than there was in South Carolina in 1850.

That all may be true. But it is probably less important than the fact that social programs like affirmative action and busing have had far different long-range impact than the ones politicians yatter on about.

Politics and civil rights have been important, but popular entertainment has obviously been a significant factor, too, in a country whose role models include Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and friends. Next: Much more interracial adoption.

Monsieur Tocqueville would approve. We all should. This is America, and we are supposed to be free to pursue happiness anywhere we find it.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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