Love and Race
December 6, 2002
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
In a world brimming with bad news, here's one of the
happiest trends: Instead of preying on people of different
races, young Americans are falling in love with them.
Whites and blacks can be found strolling together as
couples even at the University of Mississippi, once the
symbol of racial confrontation.
"I will say that they are always given a second glance,"
acknowledges C. J. Rhodes, a black student at Ole Miss. He
adds that there are still misgivings about interracial
dating, particularly among black women and a formidable
number of "white Southerners who view this race-mixing as
abnormal, frozen by fear to see Sara Beth bring home a
Mixed-race marriages in the U.S. now number 1.5 million and
are roughly doubling each decade. About 40 percent of
Asian-Americans and 6 percent of blacks have married whites
in recent years.
Still more striking, one survey found that 40 percent of
Americans had dated someone of another race.
In a country where racial divisions remain deep, all this
love is an enormously hopeful sign of progress in bridging
barriers. Scientists who study the human genome say that
race is mostly a bogus distinction reflecting very little
genetic difference, perhaps one-hundredth of 1 percent of
Skin color differences are recent, arising over only the
last 100,000 years or so, a twinkling of an evolutionary
eye. That's too short a period for substantial genetic
differences to emerge, and so there is perhaps 10 times
more genetic difference within a race than there is between
races. Thus we should welcome any trend that makes a
superficial issue like color less central to how we
categorize each other.
The rise in interracial marriage reflects a revolution in
attitudes. As recently as 1958 a white mother in Monroe,
N.C., called the police after her little girl kissed a
black playmate on the cheek; the boy, Hanover Thompson, 9,
was then sentenced to 14 years in prison for attempted
rape. (His appeals failed, but he was released later after
In 1963, 59 percent of Americans believed that marriage
between blacks and whites should be illegal. At one time or
another 42 states banned intermarriage, although the
Supreme Court finally invalidated these laws in 1967.
Typically, the miscegenation laws voided any interracial
marriages, making the children illegitimate, and some
states included penalties such as enslavement, life
imprisonment and whippings. My wife is Chinese-American,
and our relationship would once have been felonious.
At every juncture from the 19th century on, the
segregationists warned that granting rights to blacks would
mean the start of a slippery slope, ending up with black
men marrying white women. The racists were prophetic.
"They were absolutely right," notes Randall Kennedy, the
Harvard Law School professor and author of a dazzling new
book, "Interracial Intimacies," to be published next month.
"I do think [interracial marriage] is a good thing. It's a
welcome sign of thoroughgoing desegregation. We talk about
desegregation in the public sphere; here's desegregation in
the most intimate sphere."
These days, interracial romance can be seen on the big
screen, on TV shows and in the lives of some prominent
Americans. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen has a
black wife, as does Peter Norton, the software guru. The
Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas has a white wife.
I find the surge in intermarriage to be one of the most
positive fronts in American race relations today, building
bridges and empathy. But it's still in its infancy.
I was excited to track down interracial couples at Ole
Miss, thinking they would be perfect to make my point about
this hopeful trend. But none were willing to talk about the
issue on the record.
"Even if people wanted to marry [interracially], I think
they'd keep it kind of quiet," explained a minister on
For centuries, racists warned that racial equality would
lead to the "mongrelization" of America. Perhaps they were
right in a sense, for we're increasingly going to see a
blurring of racial distinctions. But these distinctions
acquired enormous social resonance without ever having much
basis in biology.
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