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The Urban-Rural Divide in Interracial Marriage

More Americans than ever are married to someone of a different race—but it’s more common in some places than others.

Emma Foulkes, left, and Petrina Bloodworth hold hands and show their wedding rings after being married at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Georgia's ban on same-sex marriage
John Bazemore/AP

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage, interracial couples are more common than ever before—especially in cities.

That’s a finding from a new report from the Pew Research Center looking at the state of interracial marriage today. Overall, there has been a dramatic increase in interracial marriage. In 2015, 10 percent of all married Americans were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity. That’s up from just 3 percent in 1980. Seventeen percent of all weddings performed in 2015 were interracial, up from 7 percent in 1980.

In cities, those figures are even higher. In 2015, 18 percent of new marriages in metropolitan areas were interracial, compared with 11 percent of newlyweds outside of metropolitan areas. The rates were highest in Honolulu (42 percent), Las Vegas (31 percent), and Santa Barbara (30 percent). Intermarriage is rarest in metro areas in southern states (Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and the Carolinas), as well as two metro areas in Pennsylvania. Jackson, Mississippi, and Asheville, North Carolina, tie at 3 percent for the lowest share of intermarried newlyweds.

Intermarriage is increasingly common in part due to changing attitudes concerning race, and in part to the growing share of Asian-American and Hispanic people in the United States. Rates have steadily increased since 1967, when the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia ruling barred states from outlawing interracial marriage.

Although 11 percent of white newlyweds are now married to someone of a different race or ethnicity, white people are still the least likely of all major racial or ethnic groups to intermarry. Black newlyweds, meanwhile, have seen the most dramatic increases of any group, from 5 percent in 1980 to 18 percent today.

The gap between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, however, “is driven entirely by whites,” according to the report. “Hispanics and Asians are more likely to intermarry if they live in non-metro areas.” For black people, urban living doesn’t seem to make a difference: their intermarriage rates hang steady at 18 percent in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas alike. The interactive map accompanying the report shows the huge variation in intermarriage rates across the U.S. by metro area.

When it comes to explaining this urban-rural divide, there are many possible factors. Public perception of intermarriage might play a part: 45 percent of adults in urban areas say that “more people of different races marrying each other is a good thing for society,” the study reports. Thirty-eight percent of those in suburban areas say the same. Only 24 percent of people living in rural areas agreed with that statement.

Differences in racial composition of metropolitan and non-metropolitan populations may also account for some of the gap: 83 percent of newlyweds in non-metro areas are white, compared to 62 percent in metro areas. Hispanics and Asians, on the other hand, make up 26 percent of newlyweds in metro areas and only 10 percent in non-metro areas—and they’re much more likely than white people to marry outside their ethnic groups.

“Part of it is about numbers,” says Pew senior researcher Gretchen Livingston, a co-author of the report. “The pool of potential spouses in urban areas in the U.S. tends to be a bit more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity than the pool in rural areas, so that fact in and of itself can increase the likelihood of intermarriage.”

Livingston cites the example of Honolulu, where 42 percent of newlyweds are intermarried and the population is 42 percent Asian, 20 percent white, and 9 percent Hispanic. “If you look at the breakdown of the marriage market there, it really is such a mix, with no racial or ethnic group counts for more than half of the pool,” she says.

Las Vegas and Santa Barbara follow a similar pattern. That suggests the importance of the diversity of the marriage market, but at the other end of the spectrum, Livingston says, “the story is not as clear.”

One one hand, Asheville, North Carolina, where only 3 percent of newlyweds are intermarried and 85 percent of the population is white, fits with the idea that diversity—or lack thereof—drives intermarriage rates. “But on the other hand, Jackson, Mississippi, is relatively diverse, there are relatively high shares of both whites and blacks in the marriage market, yet intermarriage is quite low there, at 3 percent,” Livingston says. “I can’t know for sure what explains that, but we do know that acceptance of intermarriage does tend to be lower in the South and in the Midwest, and I suspect that might be playing a role there.”

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