Is Love Colorblind?
JUST three decades ago, Thurgood Marshall was only months away from appointment to the Supreme Court when he suffered an indignity that today seems not just outrageous but almost incomprehensible. He and his wife had found their dream house in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., but could not lawfully live together in that state: he was black and she was East Asian. Fortunately for the Marshalls, in January 1967 the Supreme Court struck down the anti-interracial-marriage laws in Virginia and 18 other states. And in 1967 these laws were not mere leftover scraps from an extinct era. Two years before, at the crest of the civil-rights revolution, a Gallup poll found that 72 per cent of Southern whites and 42 per cent of Northern whites still wanted to ban interracial marriage.
Let’s fast-forward to the present and another black – Asian couple: retired Green Beret Lieutenant Colonel Eldrick Woods Sr. and his Thai-born wife, Kultida. They are not hounded by the police — just by journalists desperate to write more adulatory articles about how well they raised their son Tiger. The colossal popularity of young Tiger Woods and the homage paid his parents are remarkable evidence of white Americans’ change in attitude toward what they formerly denounced as “miscegenation.” In fact, Tiger’s famously mixed ancestry (besides being black and Thai, he’s also Chinese, white, and American Indian) is not merely tolerated by golf fans. More than a few seem to envision Tiger as a shining symbol of what America could become in a post-racial age.
Interracial marriage is growing steadily. From the 1960 to the 1990 Census, white – East Asian married couples increased almost tenfold, while black – white couples quadrupled. The reasons are obvious: greater integration and the decline of white racism. More subtly, interracial marriages are increasingly recognized as epitomizing what our society values most in a marriage: the triumph of true love over convenience and prudence. Nor is it surprising that white – Asian marriages outnumber black – white marriages: the social distance between whites and Asians is now far smaller than the distance between blacks and whites. What’s fascinating, however, is that in recent years a startling number of nonwhites — especially Asian men and black women — have become bitterly opposed to intermarriage.
This is a painful topic to explore honestly, so nobody does. Still, it’s important because interracial marriages are a leading indicator of what life will be like in the even more diverse and integrated twenty-first century. Intermarriages show that integration can churn up unexpected racial conflicts by spotlighting enduring differences between the races.
For example, probably the most disastrous mistake Marcia Clark made in prosecuting O. J. Simpson was to complacently allow Johnny Cochran to pack the jury with black women. As a feminist, Mrs. Clark smugly assumed that all female jurors would identify with Nicole Simpson. She ignored pretrial research indicating that black women tended to see poor Nicole as The Enemy, one of those beautiful blondes who steal successful black men from their black first wives, and deserve whatever they get.
The heart of the problem for Asian men and black women is that intermarriage does not treat every sex/race combination equally: on average, it has offered black men and Asian women new opportunities for finding mates among whites, while exposing Asian men and black women to new competition from whites.
In the 1990 Census, 72 percent of black – white couples consisted of a black husband and a white wife. In contrast, white – Asian pairs showed the reverse: 72 percent consisted of a white husband and an Asian wife.
[For 2000 Census ratios, see my 2003 article “2000 Census: Interracial Marriage Gender Gap Remains Large.”]
Sexual relations outside of marriage are less fettered by issues of family approval and long-term practicality, and they appear to be even more skewed. The 1992 Sex in America study of 3,432 people, as authoritative a work as any in a field where reliable data are scarce, found that ten times more single white women than single white men reported that their most recent sex partner was black.
Few whites comprehend the growing impact on minorities of these interracial husband – wife disparities. One reason is that the effect on whites has been balanced. Although white women hunting for husbands, for example, suffer more competition from Asian women, they also enjoy increased access to black men. Further, the weight of numbers dilutes the effect on whites.
In 1990, 1.46 million Asian women were married, compared to only 1.26 million Asian men. This net drain of 0.20 million white husbands into marriages to Asian women is too small to be noticed by the 75 million white women, except in Los Angeles and a few other cities with large Asian populations and high rates of intermarriage. Yet, this 0.20 million shortage of Asian wives leaves a high proportion of frustrated Asian bachelors in its wake.
Black women’s resentment of intermarriage is now a staple of daytime talk shows, hit movies like Waiting to Exhale, and magazine articles. Black novelist Bebe Moore Campbell described her and her tablemates’ reactions upon seeing a black actor enter a restaurant with a blonde: “In unison, we moaned, we groaned, we rolled our eyes heavenward . . . Then we all shook our heads as we lamented for the 10,000th time the perfidy of black men, and cursed trespassing white women who dared to ‘take our men.”’ Like most guys, though, Asian men are reticent about admitting any frustrations in the mating game. But anger over intermarriage is visible on Internet on-line discussion groups for young Asians. The men, featuring an even-greater-than-normal-for-the-Internet concentration of cranky bachelors, accuse the women of racism for dating white guys. For example, “This [dating] disparity is a manifestation of a silent conspiracy by the racist white society and self-hating Asian [nasty word for “women”] to effect the genocide of Asian Americans.” The women retort that the men are racist and sexist for getting sore about it. All they can agree upon is that Media Stereotypes and/or Low Self-Esteem must somehow be at fault.
LET’S review other facts about intermarriage and how they violate conventional sociological theories.
1. You would normally expect more black women than black men to marry whites because far more black women are in daily contact with whites. First, among blacks aged 20 – 39, there are about 10 per cent more women than men alive. Another tenth of the black men in these prime marrying years are literally locked out of the marriage market by being locked up in jail, and maybe twice that number are on probation or parole. So, there may be nearly 14 young black women for every 10 young black men who are alive and unentangled with the law. Further, black women are far more prevalent than black men in universities (by 80 per cent in grad schools), in corporate offices, and in other places where members of the bourgeoisie, black or white, meet their mates.
Despite these opportunities to meet white men, so many middle-class black women have trouble landing satisfactory husbands that they have made Terry (Waiting to Exhale) McMillan, author of novels specifically about and for them, into a best-selling brand name. Probably the most popular romance advice regularly offered to affluent black women of a certain age is to find true love in the brawny arms of a younger black man. Both Miss McMillan’s 1996 best-seller How Stella Got Her Groove Back and the most celebrated of all books by black women, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, are romance novels about well-to-do older women and somewhat dangerous younger men. Of course, as Miss Hurston herself later learned at age 49, when she (briefly) married a 23-year-old gym coach, that seldom works out in real life.
2. Much more practical-sounding advice would be: Since there are so many unmarried Asian men and black women, they should find solace for their loneliness by marrying each other. Yet, when was the last time you saw an Asian man and a black woman together? Black-man/Asian-woman couples are still quite unusual, but Asian-man/black-woman pairings are incomparably more rare.
Similar patterns appear in other contexts:
3a. Within races: Black men tend to most ardently pursue lighter-skinned, longer-haired black women (e.g., Spike Lee’s School Daze). Yet black women today do not generally prefer fairer men.
3b. In other countries: In Britain, 40 per cent of black men are married to or living with a white woman, versus only 21 per cent of black women married to or living with a white man.
3c. In art: Madame Butterfly, a white-man/Asian-woman tragedy, has been packing them in for a century, recently under the name Miss Saigon. The greatest black-man/white-woman story, Othello, has been an endless hit in both Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s versions. (To update Karl Marx’s dictum: Theater always repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as opera, and finally as farce, as seen in that recent smash, O.J., The Moor of Brentwood.) Maybe Shakespeare did know a thing or two about humanity: America’s leading portrayer of Othello, James Earl Jones, has twice fallen in love with and married the white actress playing opposite him as Desdemona.
4. The civil-rights revolution left husband – wife balances among interracial couples more unequal. Back in 1960 white husbands were seen in 50 per cent of black-white couples (versus only 28 per cent in 1990), and in only 62 per cent of white – Asian couples (versus 72 per cent).
Why? Discrimination, against black men and Asian women. In the Jim Crow South black men wishing to date white women faced pressures ranging from raised eyebrows to lynch mobs. In contrast, the relatively high proportion of Asian-man/white-woman couples in 1960 was a holdover caused by anti-Asian immigration laws that had prevented women, most notably Chinese women, from joining the largely male pioneer immigrants. As late as 1930 Chinese-Americans were 80 per cent male. So, the limited number of Chinese men who found wives in the mid twentieth century included a relatively high fraction marrying white women. In other words, as legal and social discrimination have lessened, natural inequalities have asserted themselves.
5. Keeping black men and white women apart was the main purpose of Jim Crow. Gunnar Myrdal’s landmark 1944 study found that Southern whites generally grasped that keeping blacks down also retarded their own economic progress, but whites felt that was the price they had to pay to make black men less attractive to white women. To the extent that white racism persists, it should limit the proportion of black-man/white-woman couples.
SINCE these inequalities in interracial marriage are so contrary to conventional expectations, what causes them? Academia’s and the mass media’s preferred reaction has been to ignore husband – wife disproportions entirely. When the subject has raised its ugly head, though, they’ve typically tossed out arbitrary ideas to explain a single piece of the puzzle, rather than address the entire yin and yang of black – white and white – Asian marriages. For example, a Japanese-American poetry professor in Minnesota has written extensively on his sexual troubles with white women. He blames the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Presumably, the similarity of frustrations of Chinese-American men is just a coincidence caused by, say, China losing the Opium War. And the problems of Vietnamese men stem from winning the Vietnam War, etc. But piecemeal rationalizations are unappealing compared to a theory which might explain all the evidence.
The general pattern to be explained is: blacks are more in demand as husbands than as wives, and vice-versa for Asians. The question is, what accounts for it?
The usual sociological explanations for who marries whom (e.g., availability, class, and social approval) never work simultaneously for blacks and Asians. This isn’t surprising because these social-compatibility factors influence the total number of black – white or white – Asian marriages more than the husband – wife proportions within intermarriages.
By emphasizing how society encourages us to marry people like ourselves, sociologists miss half the picture: by definition, heterosexual attraction thrives on differences. Although Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering are so compatible that they break into song about it (“Why Can’t a Woman Be More like a Man?”), Higgins falls in love with Eliza Doolittle. Opposites attract. And certain race/sex pairings seem to be more opposite than others. The force driving these skewed husband – wife proportions appears to be differences in perceived sexual attractiveness. On average, black men tend to appear slightly more and Asian men slightly less masculine than white men, while Asian women are typically seen as slightly more and black women as slightly less feminine than white women.
Obviously, these are gross generalizations about the races. Nobody believes Michael Jackson could beat up kung-fu star Jackie Chan or that comedienne Margaret Cho is lovelier than Sports Illustrated swimsuit covergirl Tyra Banks. But life is a game of probabilities, not of abstract Platonic essences.
So, what makes blacks more masculine-seeming and Asians more feminine-seeming? Media stereotypes are sometimes invoked. TV constantly shows black men slam-dunking, while it seems the only way an Asian man can get some coverage is to discover a cure for AIDS. Yet try channel-surfing for minority women. You’ll see black women dancing, singing, joking, and romancing. If, however, you even see an Asian woman, she’ll probably be newscasting — not the most alluring of roles.
Conventional wisdom sometimes cites social conditioning as well. But while this is not implausible for American-born blacks, who come from a somewhat homogeneous culture, it’s insensitive to the diversity of cultures in which Asians are raised. Contrast Koreans and Filipinos and Cambodian refugees and fifth-generation Japanese-Americans. It’s not clear they have much in common culturally other than that in the West their women are more in demand as spouses than their men.
One reasonable cultural explanation for the sexual attractiveness of black men today is the hypermasculinization of black life over the last few decades. To cite a benign aspect of this trend, if you’ve followed the Olympics on TV since the 1960s you’ve seen sprinters’ victory celebrations evolve from genteel exercises in restraint into orgies of fist-pumping, trash-talking black machismo. This showy masculinization of black behavior may be in part a delayed reaction to the long campaign by Southern white males to portray themselves as “The Man” and the black man as a “boy.” But let’s not be content to stop our analysis here. Why did Jim Crow whites try so hard to demean black manhood? As we’ve seen, the chief reason was to prevent black men from impregnating white women.
So, did all racist whites a century ago make keeping minorities away from their women their highest priority? No. As noted earlier, the anti-Asian immigration laws kept Asian women out, forcing many Asian immigrant bachelors to look for white women (with mixed success). While white men were certainly not crazy about this side effect, it seemed an acceptable tradeoff, since they feared Asian immigrants more as economic than as sexual competitors. But why did whites historically dread the masculine charms of blacks more than those of Asians? Merely asking this question points out that social conditioning is ultimately a superficial explanation of the differences among peoples. Yes, society socializes individuals, but what socializes society?
There are only three fundamental causes for the myriad ways groups differ. The first is unsatisfying but no doubt important: random flukes of history. The second, the favorite of Thomas Sowell and Jared Diamond, is differences in geography and climate. The third is human biodiversity. Let’s look at three physical differences between the races. 1) Asian men tend to be shorter than white and black men. Does this matter in the mating game? One of America’s leading hands-on researchers into this question, 7’1″, 280-pound basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, reports that in his ample experience being tall and strong never hurt. Biological anthropologists confirm this, finding that taller tends to be better in the eyes of most women in just about all cultures. Like most traits, height is determined by the interaction of genetic and social factors (e.g., nutrition). For example, the L.A. Dodgers’ flamethrowing pitcher Hideo Nomo is listed as 6’2″, an almost unheard-of height for any Japanese man fifty years ago, owing to the near-starvation diets of the era. While the height gap between Japanese and whites narrowed significantly after World War II, this trend has slowed in recent years as well-fed Japanese began bumping up against genetic limits. Furthermore, it can be rather cold comfort to a 5’7″ Asian who is competing for dates with white and black guys averaging 5’11” to hear, “Your sons will grow up on average a couple of inches taller than you, assuming, of course, that you ever meet a girl and have any kids.” In contrast, consider a 5’1″ Asian coed. Although she’d be happy with a 5’7″ boyfriend if she were in an all-Asian school, at UCLA she finds lots of boys temptingly much taller than that, but few are Asian.
2. This general principle — the more racial integration there is, the more important become physical differences among the races — can also be seen with regard to hair length. The ability to grow long hair is a useful indicator of youth and good health. (Ask anybody on chemotherapy.) Since women do not go bald and can generally grow longer hair than men, most cultures associate longer hair with femininity. Although blacks’ hair doesn’t grow as long as whites’ or Asians’ hair, that’s not a problem for black women in all-black societies. After integration, though, hair often becomes an intense concern for black women competing with longer-haired women of other races. While intellectuals in black-studies departments’ ebony towers denounce “Eurocentric standards of beauty,” most black women respond more pragmatically. They one-up white women by buying straight from the source of the longest hair: the Wall Street Journal recently reported on the booming business in furnishing African-American women with “weaves” and “extensions” harvested from the follicularly gifted women of China.
3. Muscularity may most sharply differentiate the races in terms of sexual attractiveness. Women like men who are stronger than they; men like women who are rounder and softer. The ending of segregation in sports has made racial differences in muscularity harder to ignore. Although the men’s 100-meter dash is among the world’s most widely contested events, in the last four Olympics all 32 finalists have been blacks of West African descent.
Is muscularity quantifiable? PBS fitness expert Covert Bailey finds that he needs to recommend different goals — in terms of percentage of body fat — to his clients of different races. The standard goal for adult black men is 12 per cent body fat, versus 18 per cent for Asian men. The goals for women are 7 points higher than for men of the same race.
For interracial couples, their “gender gaps” in body-fat goals correlate uncannily with their husband – wife proportions in the 1990 Census. The goal for black men (12 per cent) is 10 points lower than the goal for white women (22 per cent), while the goal for white men (15 per cent) is only 4 points lower than the goal for black women (19 per cent). This 10:4 ratio is almost identical to the 72:28 ratio seen in the Census. This correlates just as well for white – Asian couples, too. Apparently, men want women who make them feel more like men, and vice versa for women.
Understanding the impact of genetic racial differences on American life is a necessity for anybody who wants to understand our increasingly complex society. For example, the sense of betrayal felt by Asian men certainly makes sense. After all, they tend to surpass the national average in those long-term virtues — industry, self-restraint, law-abidingness — that society used to train young women to look for in a husband. Yet, now that discrimination has finally declined enough for Asian men to expect to reap the rewards for fulfilling traditional American standards of manliness, our culture has largely lost interest in indoctrinating young women to prize those qualities.
The frustrations of Asian men are a warning sign. When, in the names of freedom and feminism, young women listen less to the hard-earned wisdom of older women about how to pick Mr. Right, they listen even more to their hormones. This allows cruder measures of a man’s worth — like the size of his muscles — to return to prominence. The result is not a feminist utopia, but a society in which genetically gifted guys can more easily get away with acting like Mr. Wrong.
George Orwell noted, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.” We can no longer afford to have our public policy governed by fashionable philosophies which insists upon ignoring the obvious. The realities of interracial marriage, like those of professional sports, show that diversity and integration turn out in practice to be fatal to the reigning assumption of racial uniformity. The courageous individuals in interracial marriages have moved farthest past old hostilities. Yet, they’ve discovered not the featureless landscape of utter equality that was predicted by progressive pundits, but a landscape rich with fascinating racial patterns. Intellectuals should stop dreading the ever-increasing evidence of human biodiversity and start delighting in it.
This essay was originally published in 1997.