Racial barriers to marriage stand in the way of immigrant assimilation, new study suggests

September 14, 2001

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Despite America's legacy as a melting pot of cultures, immigrants coming to the U.S. in recent decades are not becoming part of American society as rapidly as European immigrants did a century ago, according to a study at Ohio State University.

The researchers - Daniel Lichter, professor of sociology at Ohio State, and Zhenchao Qian, an associate professor at Arizona State, - say one reason for this slow assimilation is the low rate of marriages between immigrants and natives. Using data from the 1990 Census, Qian and Lichter compared marriage patterns for different racial groups as well as for groups categorized by country of birth. "We found that the overwhelming share of immigrants tend to marry same-race immigrants rather than natives," Lichter said.

The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Social Science Research.

The researchers chose interracial marriage as a measure of assimilation. They reasoned that two people from different racial groups are most likely to marry when they have similar education and income levels, live in similar neighborhoods and have similar cultural practices.

"In many ways, interracial marriage is the final step or indicator of assimilation," Lichter said.

The researchers found low rates of interracial marriages not only among immigrants but also in the native-born minority population. The total proportion of interracial marriages in the sample added up to a mere 4.9 percent.

For both immigrants and natives, whites are the most likely to marry outside their race, followed by Latinos, Asians and Blacks. "We find that most interracial marriages are between whites and racial minorities rather than between different racial minorities," Qian said.

Native-born whites are nearly ten times more likely to marry Latinos than to marry African Americans, and twice as likely to marry Latinos than to marry Asians.

"If interracial marriage measures social distance, the distance between any two racial minorities is generally greater than the distance between whites and any single racial minority," Lichter said.

Interracial marriages are rarer in the immigrant population than they are among non-immigrants. The difference between rates of interracial marriage for immigrants and native-borns varies across racial groups, suggesting that immigrants of certain racial or cultural backgrounds might be assimilating into American society more quickly than others.

"In comparison to Asians and Blacks, native-born Latinos are much more likely than foreign-born Latinos to marry whites. This implies that Latinos are assimilating much more rapidly into mainstream 'white' society than either Asians or Blacks," Lichter said.

Marriage patterns among recent immigrants are markedly different from what occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Europeans of diverse national origins and cultural backgrounds intermarried. Since most immigrants were white, there was no race barrier to marriage and assimilation. "Today, we have a very different situation which makes assimilation slower and more difficult to achieve," Qian said.

Lichter and Qian believe that their findings raise interesting questions about how American society will evolve over the next 20 years.

"Unlike the 18th and 19th centuries, when the majority of the immigrant population was white and often inter-married across ethnic groups, most immigrants coming to the United States today are from Asia and Latin America," Lichter said. "If new immigrant groups remain closed both from other groups and from the rest of American society, the nation may face continuing challenges to racial and ethnic group harmony."

The result could be an increasingly balkanized America with groups of people segregated by job, neighborhood and ethnicity.

"Our social map will be shaped by whether race persists as a significant barrier to marriage with native whites or if it diminishes in importance, leading to a blurring of cultural boundaries," Lichter said.

Qian and Lichter plan to conduct a similar study using data from the 2000 census. "The latest census data will allow us to track marriage and assimilation patterns not just for broad racial groups but for immigrants and native-borns of specific ethnicities," Lichter said.

The future study would also help determine how marriage patterns have changed in the past 10 years.
Contact: Daniel T. Lichter, (614) 292-2308; Lichter.5@osu.edu

Written by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, (614) 292-8456 Bhattacharjee.5@osu.edu

Ohio State University

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