All in the (mixed-race) family: a US trend

Data show a significant rise in mixed-race families due to interracial marriages and multiracial adoptions.

Five years ago, Ann Tollefson says, her family was stared at. Nobody was openly hostile, but often enough they'd point to her children - adopted from China, India, and Vietnam - and ask, "How much did they cost?"

Today it's a different story. There are more mixed-race families in America than ever before - even in Mrs. Tollefson's St. Louis suburb.

New 2000 Census data show that more than 1 in 6 adopted kids is of a different race from their parents. And according to new analysis by William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington, about 1 in 15 marriages in the US is interracial - up from 1 in 23 in 1990.

America "has always, obviously, had people of color," says adoption expert Adam Pertman. "The bigger notion is that America is ... starting to accept that it is a nation of color. We see that now not just within cities, but within the family."

Tollefson sees it in her parish. Hers was the only mixed-race family there when she and her husband first adopted in 1995. Today, three other families have adopted kids from China, and several more from Guatemala. It makes a difference, she says: Her kids are happy, but they seem to relax just a little more when they're around other mixed-race families.

"They warm up faster. They're not as clingy. They try new things more when they're around people who look like us," she says.

And she notices a difference, too, in the way people look at her family: "People are much more accepting today.... You know the ripple thing, a drop in the water and the rings go out? It's hard to find somebody who hasn't been touched by international adoption."

According to the first-ever profile of America's adopted children, released in a Census report Friday, 1.6 million US children under 18 are in adoptive families. Of those, 17 percent of adoptees make their families multiracial, and 13 percent were born abroad.

Mr. Pertman, director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, estimates that the number of US adoptions from abroad has tripled in the past decade.

"When you look at the number of people adopting from Asia, from Latin America - more than half are adopting from countries where the kids aren't going to look anything like their parents," he says. "That's starting to make a difference in the way people think of families, of inheritance, of nurture versus nature, you name it."

More people are marrying people who don't look anything like them, as well. But Mr. Frey, who analyzed detailed microsamples of census data, found that the numbers varied highly from state to state. In New Mexico, for instance, 16 percent of all marriages were interracial, whereas in Mississippi it's 2 percent.

"There are two ways of looking at this," Frey says. "One is, it's gone real fast. And two: It's pretty concentrated in just a few states.... It's still a pretty small share of all marriages, especially those involving whites."

It's worth noting that unlike most census analysts, Frey treated Latinos as a racial group, and nearly half of the 3.7 million interracial marriages he counts include a Latino.

Frey calls some of the states with the highest percentages of mixed-race marriages - such as New Mexico, California, and Hawaii - "melting pot" states: All have several significant minority groups, not just one.

That's something Brigitte Ball can attest to. A corporate librarian in Boston, Ms. Ball has been married for two years. She is African-American; her husband, Jeff, is white. They met in Seattle, Brigitte's hometown. There, she says, she grew up with far less segregation by neighborhood than she sees in cities like Boston. Her best friends include women who are biracial, Jewish, and Latina.

"We're like a United Nations bunch," she laughs.

Recently, Brigitte has been reading "Interracial Intimacies" by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, which examines America's long and troubled history with both marriage and adoption across racial lines.

"Some of the stories he brings up - you can't look at the way things are today and not think there hasn't been progress," she says. Still, she and Jeff are thinking of moving back to Seattle when they decide to have children. "I would never want my kid to be in a situation where he's one child surrounded by only black, or only white," she explains.

That segregation by neighborhood, which still exists in many American cities, may help explain another of Frey's findings: that blacks are far less likely than other groups to marry across racial lines. While nearly 30 percent of marriages involving a Latino or Asian is interracial, only about 12 percent of marriages involving an African-American is.

America's two major racial barriers, he says, are more intimate ones: living next door to someone of a different race and marrying someone of a different race. "And those are the areas where black segregation has continued to remain high."

Still, Frey found that even states with the lowest percentages of interracial marriages have seen substantial growth. They increased in Tennessee by 133 percent since 1990, and doubled in West Virginia and Vermont. "It's a trend on the rise in every place," Frey says. "But it will be a long time before West Virginia or Vermont or North Dakota will be in the 'postracial America' kind of scenario."

In the end, both adoption and marriage may help break down some racial barriers that persist. With adoption in particular, Pertman finds that it's tough for people to hang onto prejudices.

"We're a polyglot nation. Adoption just makes that more intimate, within a family. So a racist who doesn't think black and white people should marry suddenly has a Chinese niece. Suddenly it's their family, suddenly it's hard to argue with."

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