In 2010, a record 10 percent of opposite-sex married couples told America’s census takers that they lived in an interracial household—up from 7.4 percent in 2000. Given America's racial history with blacks, Latinos, Japanese and Chinese, 1 in 10 is no doubt a pretty intriguing fact about the country, a reflection of big social transformations that have taken place over the past few decades, and worth examination on its own. But the numbers don’t just tell us about where the country is—they suggest a dramatic story about where it’s headed.
President Barack Obama is the living embodiment of this trend—a one-man melting pot, as he noted during his March 18, 2008 address on the long-since-forgotten Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy. “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents,” he said, “and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” He was re-elected in 2012 amid historic turnout among minority voters, a fact that has not been lost on his opponents, especially the white conservatives who inhabit the outer reaches of the far right.
In that sense, the often racially charged opposition to America’s first multiracial president is due less to his own mixed heritage and more to what he represents: the big demographic and cultural wave that threatens to swamp the Republican Party. For the modern GOP, whose aging, overwhelmingly white base increasingly resembles the United States not as it is today but as it once was, the same feverishness that animated the partisan fights of years past is now joined with a sense of powerlessness as a younger generation of Americans looks like increasingly hostile territory—for now.
How did we get here? To start, it’s important to recognize this basic overwhelming fact: The United States is becoming more diverse. From 1990 to 2010, the white portion of the population dropped from 80 percent to 72 percent; in the electorate, it fell from 87 percent in 1992 to 72 percent in 2012. Among voters under age 30, the white proportion has fallen faster still, to 60 percent, and is expected to drop to 56 percent by 2020. Racial minorities will very soon make up the majority of the population in key states like Florida, Georgia and Nevada. It’s no longer immigration driving this, but higher birth rates: In 2011 non-white births outnumbered white births in the United States for the first time, the Census Bureau reported.
America has had plenty of racial diversity in past eras, of course—particularly in the American South and Southwest. For most of the 20th century, blacks were around 10 percent of the U.S. population, but in the pre-civil rights era South, blacks were more than a quarter of the population. Hispanics made up approximately 20 percent of the population in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas after 1900 (a number up to about 30 percent today). The difference back then is that across these regions, the doctrine of white racial supremacy was the norm, discrimination and segregation were commonplace and interracial marriage was illegal in the South; mixed marriages were almost unheard of. We’ve had plenty of diversity, in other words, but not the ingredients to change our politics.
The civil rights movement upended all that as Americans erected legal protections against racial discrimination, advanced affirmative action and ended the restrictive 1920s immigration quota system. But it was only the belated acceptance of interracial marriage that became the threshold for real racial acceptance and equality. The country had passed the Voting Rights Act and barred discrimination in employment in 1965, but even two years later the nation was in a tizzy over the first mainstream portrayal of a mixed-race couple in the movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. True acceptance—as with the more recent debates over gay marriage—has been decades in the making.
Only recently, in fact, have Americans embraced interracial marriage in overwhelming numbers. Overall, approval went up slowly during the civil rights era, stalled in the 1980s short of a majority, but jumped after 1995, reaching a high of 87 percent today. White approval jumped after 2000 and now stands at 84 percent. (Barely a majority of whites over 50, however, and just under 40 percent of white seniors, tell pollsters it would be OK if a member of their own family married someone black.)
Americans aren’t simply coming to terms with the inexorable march of demography; young people in particular have come to view interracial marriage as a positive thing —something that shows we are a better society. More than 60 percent of those under age 30 and almost half of those under 50 believe this, while only 5 percent of Americans under 30 say intermarriage is bad for the country. Contrast that with older Americans among whom racism persists: Just a quarter of seniors—and a third of conservatives—look at interracial marriages and say this makes us a better America. Millennials—those born between 1978 and 2000—will already be well over a third of eligible voters in the next presidential election, and there is every reason to believe the younger generation behind them shares that same outlook, with a vengeance. For many young people, tolerance is a point of pride: Roughly half say younger people have better attitudes toward other races and groups than older people.
It’s this combination of increased diversity, reduced legal barriers and attitudinal changes that has taken interracial marriage mainstream. The proportion of new marriages between couples of different races and ethnicities doubled from 6.7 percent in 1980 to 15.1 percent in 2010. A stunning 17 percent of newly married African-Americans, 26 percent of Hispanics and 28 percent of Asian-Americans married someone of a different race. About a quarter of newly married African-American men and over a third of Asian women formed interracial households. This is the new America.
But there’s where the politics get complicated: Race may be a thing of the past for most young Americans, but that is not yet the case for the base of the Republican Party, which is supremely conscious of its dwindling numbers in a country exploding with diversity. In my work for Democratic candidates and causes, my firm’s focus groups have found that racial sentiment contributes significantly to the over-the-top hostility to Obamacare, and tea party groups’ insistence on doing anything, even shutting down the government and risking a debt default, to stop it: The hard right fears losing to a Democratic Party whose goal is to expand programs that disproportionally benefit minorities, especially Hispanics.
Extrapolate current population trends to 2016, and Republicans have even more to worry about. With the same proportional turnout rates by race, age and gender, Obama would win Florida by 4 percentage points. Arizona and North Carolina are becoming competitive, and even Texas could someday go blue. No wonder conservative Republicans are so terrified of America’s first interracial president—not for who he is or what he does, but for what he means.
But if there’s one truism about American politics, it’s that no advantage is permanent. After all, Democrats once had a lock on the South, and it was Southern Democrats like Georgia Sen. Richard Russell who stood firm against President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights agenda. The two parties swapped regions and voters on a big scale. As America’s racial and ethnic categories continue their mad scramble, Republicans will face a crisis, and who can predict how that will shake out? The future of the parties is in any event much less interesting than the future of the country. The young people who helped twice elect Barack Obama might someday bring us the first half-black, half-Hispanic president, or the first half-white, half-Asian president. And who knows how they will change the country? That's what will matter.
Stanley B. Greenberg is a Democratic pollster and political strategist.
Photographs by Robert Kalma
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