- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2001

They're everywhere these days. A hip couple kissing in a Perrier magazine ad. Any number of professional athletes and their wives. The young lovers in the movies "Save the Last Dance" and "crazy/beautiful." They're all something that used to be almost unknown and, to most people, quite shocking: interracial couples.

To young Americans, a black-white pair may be about as novel and daring as a Toyota Camry. But once upon a time, the idea was more controversial than gay marriage is today. For anyone old enough to remember the bloody battles of the civil rights movement, the change in sentiments about what used to be referred to as "miscegenation" is one of the most dramatic and hopeful developments of the last generation.

Make no mistake: Attitudes have changed, and fast. In 1963, 59 percent of Americans agreed there should be laws banning marriage between blacks and whites. Southern states persisted in outlawing such unions until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court said the prohibitions were unconstitutional. Despite that, as late as 1982, 1 in 3 Americans still thought blacks and whites should not be permitted to marry.

But no more. A new survey sponsored by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University indicates those days are gone forever. About 4 in 10 Americans, reports The Post, have dated across racial lines, and nearly 3 in 10 say they have had a "serious" relationship with someone of a different race.

No less than 86 percent of blacks surveyed said they would gladly accept a white person into the family. Among whites, 55 percent would have no problem with the arrival of a black member, and another 35 percent said they would "come to accept" the newcomer. Only 9 percent of whites said they would not be able to accept it. When the new member of the family is Hispanic or Asian-American, opposition among whites is less pronounced still.

The change is particularly conspicuous if you compare young Americans with their elders. Only 44 percent of whites between the ages of 50 and 64 would be happy to see a member of their family marrying an African-American. But among the 18-to-29 age group, 80 percent say it would be fine.

It's hard to overstate the significance of this trend. Much of the impetus for segregation came from a widespread horror among Caucasians that integration would lead to "race-mixing." Forty years ago, in much of the South, for a black man to enter a romance with a white woman amounted to signing his own death warrant.

Allen Ballard, a historian at the State University of New York-Albany, says that at least one-third of all lynchings of black men came about because it was believed they had "molested" a forbidden female. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, victim of one of the most notorious murders of the civil rights era, died merely because he allegedly whistled at a white woman in a small Mississippi town.

But not all interracial couplings were treated harshly in the old South. Many white slaveholders forced themselves on female slaves Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings being one possible example without fear of punishment. Mixed-race children were common in slave households. Only if a white man wanted to take a black woman as his wife could he expect to run into problems.

Marriages between white men and black women are still much rarer than those between black men and white women. But even among "conservative" white males, it's no longer unusual to bridge racial boundaries.

Republican Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky both are married to Asian-Americans. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is the husband of a Latino woman who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. All three are longtime politicians in states that were part of or associated with the Confederacy. But their marriages have never been an issue at the polls.

You can be sure that racial barriers to romance will continue to erode. In the 2000 census, nearly 7 million Americans classified themselves as multiracial, and I shouldn't have to explain where they came from. Among whites, pairings with Asian-Americans or Latinos hardly even count as "interracial" anymore.

The influx of immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa in recent years has made it impossible for any racial group to isolate itself from others. And contact among people of different races leads inevitably to canoodling among people of different races.

Racial prejudice is still a big part of the reality of life in this country, but it is losing ground as more and more Americans interact more and more often with people who don't look like them. Mark Twain noted, "Familiarity breeds contempt and children." Well, he was half-right.

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