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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hawaii still leads U.S. with highest rate of mixed marriages

Advertiser Staff and News Services

Nearly one-third of marriages in the Islands are between interracial couples by far the largest percentage in the country and four times the national average, according to a new analysis of the latest census figures.

That Hawai'i tops the nation in its percentage of mixed-race marriages probably comes as no surprise to residents: Hawai'i known for its diverse population and melting pot attitude has held the spot for decades.

Meanwhile, nationally, the growth of interracial couples is slowing among U.S.-born Hispanics and Asians.

Sylvia Yuen, director on the Center on the Family at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa, said interracial couples are so common in the Islands that it's something people almost don't notice anymore.

"It just becomes very natural," she said, adding that doesn't mean everything goes smoothly.

"There are accommodations that have to be made because there are differences. From the couples' point of view they have to work" those out, she said.

Ibrahim Aoude, chairman of the ethnic studies department at UH-Mānoa, said there's also a tendency to take a rosier-than-reality view of the interracial couples figures.

"It is good to promote. But this notion that because we are 'multicultural,' therefore everything is hunky-dory, that's really false."

Taking a racially centered view on mixed marriages sometimes misses the point: A man of Filipino ancestry could marry a woman of Chinese ancestry and their marriage wouldn't be considered "mixed."

When ethnicities are taken into account, however, more than half of Hawai'i marriages are mixed, according to the state Health Department.

Of the 9,401 resident couples married in the Islands in 2007, about 55 percent were among people of different races or ethnicities, according to state statistics. Among 17,945 nonresidents who married in Hawai'i, 17 percent were mixed.

By comparison, 45 percent of resident couples married in 1999 were mixed, while 13 percent of nonresident couples were, the state figures show.

Census figures show the number of interracial marriages nationally has risen 20 percent since 2000 to about 4.5 million a steep drop-off from the 65 percent increase between 1990 and 2000.

About 8 percent of U.S. marriages are mixed-race, up from 7 percent a decade ago.

After Hawai'i, Alaska has the highest percentage of mixed-race marriages 19 percent. Oklahoma, New Mexico and Nevada round out the top five, while West Virginia is at the bottom of the list, with 2.9 percent.

The national trend belies notions of the United States as a post-racial, assimilated society. Demographers say immigration has given Hispanics and Asians more ethnically similar partners to choose from while creating some social distance from whites because of cultural or language divides.

White wariness of a rapidly growing U.S. minority population also may be contributing to racial divisions and a drop-off in interracial marriages.

"Racial boundaries are not going to disappear anytime soon," said Daniel Lichter, a professor of sociology at Cornell University, who noted the increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and current tensions in Arizona over a controversial new immigration law.

Today, about 40 percent of U.S.-born Asians marry whites, a figure unchanged since 1980. But the likelihood they'll marry foreign-born Asians has tripled for men and quintupled for women, to 20 percent.

Among U.S.-born Hispanics, marriages with whites increased from roughly 30 percent to 38 percent over the past 30 years. But when it came to marriages with foreign-born Hispanics, the share doubled to 12.5 percent for men, and 17.1 percent for women, the census figures show.

In contrast, blacks are three times as likely to marry whites than in 1980. About 14.4 percent of black men and 6.5 percent of black women are in such mixed marriages, attributed to higher educational attainment, a more racially integrated military and a rising black middle class.


The numbers reflect in part an internal struggle that many Asians and Hispanics on the Mainland say they feel navigating two cultural worlds the United States and their parents' homeland. The shifts can complicate notions of identity.

Yuen, of the Center on the Family, said those struggles are seen even in the Islands.

She said people from older generations or new immigrants often shun interracial marriage, while younger generations find it commonplace.

"When the kids sometimes cross that boundary, particularly if there are grandkids involved, then it becomes really hard for the parents to hold on to their prejudices," Yuen said.

Increasing interracial marriages also mean the number of multiracial Americans though small is a fast-growing demographic group, making up about 5 percent of the minority population. Together with blacks, Hispanics and Asians, the Census Bureau estimates they collectively will represent a majority of the U.S. population by mid-century.

Still, many multiracial people particularly those who are part black shun a "multi" label in favor of identifying as a single race.

By some estimates, two-thirds of those who checked the single box of "black" on the census form are actually mixed, including President Obama, who identified himself as black in the 2010 census even though his mother was white.


Census figures also show:

• Mississippi had the fastest growth in mixed marriages from 2000 to 2008, a sign of closer ties between blacks and whites, though it still ranked second to last in overall share of mixed marriages.

• Mixed marriages jumped from 2.25 million to 3.7 million, or by 65 percent, from 1990-2000, as such unions became more broadly accepted in Southern states.

• Among U.S.-born whites, about 0.3 percent married blacks in 1980; that figure rose to about 1 percent in 2008. About 0.3 percent of whites married Asians in 1980 and about 1 percent in 2008. About 2 percent of whites married Hispanics in 1980, rising to about 3.6 percent in 2008.

Juan Thurman, 37, a Houston sales account manager, said both family pressure and a strong ethnic identity weighed heavily on him as a Hispanic when he was dating, even as he found himself interacting more with other races in school.

In high school and at Rice University, Thurman said, he had fewer opportunities to meet Hispanic women in his honors classes. Ultimately, he married Emily, who is white.

"Interracial marriage is not a big deal," Thurman said. "Still, from a family standpoint, I did feel culturally different and I continue to feel so."

The figures come from previous censuses as well as the 2008 American Community Survey, which surveys 3 million households.

The figures for "white" refer to those whites not of Hispanic ethnicity. For purposes of defining interracial marriages, Hispanic is counted as a race.