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Not even Cupid brings much racial unity

In a time when America was hung up on such burning issues as matching complexions to water fountains and restrooms, the question of whose hand you could take in marriage lurked as the driving force for them all.

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 7, 2002

In a time when America was hung up on such burning issues as matching complexions to water fountains and restrooms, the question of whose hand you could take in marriage lurked as the driving force for them all.

The prospect of desegregation opening the way for wholesale interracial marriages was both hoped for and feared. The naively optimistic thought such unions would eventually render the debate moot by making race indistinguishable. Racial paranoics feared and dreaded the same thing -- for the same reasons.

For a few decades, their hopes and fears seemed on the way to realization. Each census showed the number of mixed-race (black and white) married couples steadily rising, from 167,000 in 1980 to 363,000 in 2000, from 4.7 percent of black marriages including a white spouse in 1980 to nearly 8 percent in 2000.

Lest the numbers sound misleading, they represent less than 1 percent of American marriages.

Overwhelmingly, the unions were between black men and white women. Black women marry white men about one-third as often. Traditionally, these latter two groups, black women and white men, traditionally have voiced and scowled the strongest disapproval of racial intermingling. Black women often accuse white women of being interlopers, sapping the already shallow pool of available black men, especially successful ones. One black woman wrote that successful black men dating and marrying white women is "like being passed over for the prom by the boy we consider our steady date." To many, these black men are guilty of racial treason, rejection and hatred of their own race.

White men, threatened at the core of their manhood, spent centuries legislating and lynching to preserve the purity of their women. The U.S. Supreme Court closed off the legal avenues to these efforts as late as 1967, when it ruled Virginia's miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Individual states spent the next 30 years cleaning the laws off their books, with Alabama just getting around to it with a referendum on the 2000 ballot.

America is no longer obsessed with water fountains, or restrooms, except for the service stations and convenience stores that continually proclaim theirs to be out of order. Still, the division between races -- black and white -- is America's most defining and persistent conflict.

And while interracial marriage has not, for better or worse, turned out to be the road to racial harmony or damnation as was expected, it is a measure of the movement we're making, whatever the direction might be.

Intergroup marriage is a barometer of the "psychological distance" between the groups, and helps to gauge whether the country is moving toward assimilation or pluralism, whether people are coming together or coexisting by remaining distinct entities, the Population Reference Bureau reported in a recent edition of its quarterly publication, PRB Reports on America.

Applied to America, the greatest psychological distance, the measure of how comfortably interaction takes place between two groups, is between black and white populations. Consequently, "blacks and whites are the least likely of any racial-ethnic group to intermarry," the PRB report said.

Residential (geographic) and economic segregation, the other two measures of progress through assimilation or pluralism, further confirm the persistent division between black and white Americans. The report asserted that in 1990, 70 percent of black or white citizens would have needed to move if racial integration of metropolitan areas were to be achieved nationwide. Integration of Asians and Hispanics, on the other hand, would require movement of 50 percent or less.

Economically, the median income for black families lagged about $15,000 below that of white families.

All of this begs a lot of questions, not the least of which is why the gaps between black and white Americans remain so wide while nonwhites who've recently immigrated close in on whites in many categories, and as Asians have, surpass them in others.

Part of the answer can certainly be found in the nature of their arrival. They come because of the opportunities, geared to capitalize on them. They choose to sublimate aspects of their former life, the culture they voluntarily leave, if that is required to succeed in the new one.

They do not resist assimilating and closing the psychological distance. That willingness alone helps bridge the economic gap.

Black Americans, on the other hand, feel strongly compelled to preserve the semblance of culture they have built here. They often feel that assimilation is tantamount to selling out ancestors and heritage and is to be resisted, even if the cost is in economic standing.

Tragically, this country's legacy of animosity between black and white citizens has left both psychologically scarred. We resent one another at the same time we admire each other. We tout our strengths and taunt the other's weaknesses.

We don't want to be accused of acting like the other, but sometimes, in some ways, we want to be like the other. We are proud at the same time we're petty.

We're like siblings fighting over a toy that we're going to rip apart before either of us really gets a chance to enjoy it.

Only this time, the toy is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And our parents are not at home.

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