Only 50 years ago, Richard and Mildred Loving broke the law by getting married.
As a white man and a black woman, the Lovings violated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited interracial marriage. The Lovings were sentenced to a year in prison, but they brought their case before the Supreme Court and their love won. In 1967 the justices ruled in their favor in Loving v. Virginia, thereby invalidating all race-based restrictions on marriage in the United States.
That same year, only 3 percent of newlyweds were interracial. But the interracial marriage rate in the US has increased almost every year since then. In 2015, as many as 17 percent of married couples were of different races, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
Zhenchao Qian, a sociology professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and an expert on marriage patterns, says there are two components to this increase.
“One is that American society has become more diversified – there are more people of different racial groups in the US.... A lot of it is based on numbers,” says Dr. Qian. “But we also are more likely to see people of different racial groups today.... Now people have opportunities to have someone be a colleague, a classmate, in the same neighborhood, and those increased opportunities help interracial marriage come as a result.”
Public views of such marriages have also shifted drastically.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, an interracial couple, say they have seen public acceptance shift over the span of their own relationship.
“Classic situation,” Mr. de Blasio told The Wall Street Journal. He and his wife would “go into a store, we go into a restaurant, whatever, and the assumption of the people working there was that we weren’t together. That would be a constant” when they were dating in the early 1990s. “It’s fair to say we represent something that is changing in our society,” he said.
One of the largest shifts reported by Pew is family acceptance. Sixty-three percent of Americans asked in 1990 said they opposed the idea of a close relative marrying a black person. By 2016 that had fallen to 14 percent.
“We learned quickly that we couldn’t answer all of the questions that our families had,” Barb Roose, a black woman who married her white husband in 1992, told The New York Times. “[W]e decided not to let other people’s issues with our marriage become our own. We had to focus on us. This meant that my husband had to sacrifice some of his relationships for a short season in order to marry me. Thankfully, they have since reconciled.”
Many interracial couples across the US still face hardship, however.
D.J. and Angela Ross told NPR that they still experience prejudice in their hometown of Roanoke, Va. Sometimes strangers shake their heads when the couple walks down the street with their five children, says Mrs. Ross.
“It’s true that we can be together in the open. But some things, I don’t think we’ve made much progress,” says Mr. Ross. “Discrimination still happens.”
Discrimination against interracial couples has also made national news in recent years. In 2013, a Cheerios commercial drew thousands of racist comments online for featuring an interracial couple and their daughter, and in 2016 an interracial couple was attacked at a bar in Olympia, Wash.
But these cases are exceptions to a broader shift toward acceptance. In 2017, some 39 percent of Americans said interracial marriage was a good thing for society, an increase from 24 percent in 2010. Acceptance is even higher among certain demographic groups: More than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, and those with at least a bachelor’s degree, say interracial marriage is a “good thing” for US society.
“My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right.... But I have lived long enough now to see big changes,” wrote Mildred Loving in 2007. “The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.... That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”