Nontraditional unions got boost from changing family structure, sociologist says
More young people left home for college, married later, affecting family types formed
This week marks the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and ended the ban on racial intermarriage. In the decades since that ruling, the United States has witnessed a steady growth in the number of non-traditional unions, namely interracial and same-sex unions, a trend that Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld says is unprecedented in U.S. history and has important long-term implications for society.
"I see the changing American family as giving people a greater opportunity to be tolerant, giving people experiences that increase their openness to others toward an understanding of what greater freedoms are all about," says Rosenfeld, an assistant professor. "It doesn't mean that American politics is going to extend freedoms to minorities—there's certainly a big backlash against gay rights and same-sex marriage. It's not as if prejudice is going to go away—there are always going to be people who benefit from fanning the flames of prejudice. Nevertheless, society is changing, pretty dramatically, and in a way that has increased personal freedoms. This is what has conservatives and some religious leaders most upset, because they're losing that bout."
The facts speak for themselves, Rosenfeld reveals in his new book, The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-Sex Unions and the Changing American Family, published by Harvard University Press. Since Loving v. Virginia, the number of interracial marriages has risen in America. Although black-white marriages are less common than unions between whites and Hispanics or Asians, the figure nevertheless has increased from 65,000 in 1970 to 422,000 in 2005, according to Census Bureau figures. Altogether, Rosenfeld estimates that 7.5 percent of America's 59 million married couples were interracial in 2005, up from less than 2 percent in 1970. In addition, there were 593,000 same-sex cohabitating couples in 2000, about double the number of self-reported gay and lesbian couples in 1990.
"In the past few decades, interracial and same-sex unions have risen from invisibility and illegality to marginality and grudging social acceptance," Rosenfeld writes in The Age of Independence.
Rosenfeld bases his findings on newly computerized census data going back to the mid-19th century. Although a national census has been held every 10 years since 1790, individual records of censuses prior to 1940 were not available to scholars until recently. As a result, for the first time, researchers can take a long look at the family and understand how it has changed according to data rather than subjective impressions. "Our own personal perspective on this is very misleading," Rosenfeld says. "People always think they are in a time of great change. This is something universal because your own life is changing. It's hard for you to see society outside of the changes happening to you."
As a result of the new findings, classic texts have to be rescrutinized. For example, Alexis de Tocqueville's 1835 book, Democracy in America, was based on the observations of a Frenchman who spent less than a year in this country. "De Tocqueville was completely impressed with the independence of Americans from family, from church, from everything else. I think some of that has to be tempered by what we learn from the census," Rosenfeld says. "What we learn is that everybody had the same kind of family. There weren't interracial couples—there was real homogeneity. That doesn't occur by accident; it can only be the result of social pressure. It turns out that people weren't as independent from the family system as we'd like to believe." For most of history until the 1960s, Rosenfeld says, young adults remained at home until they married and started their own families. As a result, the social mores of the day constrained their actions since they depended on their families for survival.
At the heart of Rosenfeld's book is "a fairly simple argument about how changing family structure, especially the rise of the independent life stage, is a force for social change," he writes. Rosenfeld uses this argument to offer a new perspective on the social and political movements of the 1960s. "The question is why these movements were able to galvanize so many people into activism and why the activists were able to convince so many nonactivists of the basic rightness of their causes," he writes. "Some of the answer lies, in my view, with the changing American family. … I believe that demography has been neglected in our debates over social change."
Civil rights historians have argued persuasively, Rosenfeld says, that the U.S. political system was open to change in the post-World War II era because the nation's new dominant role attracted greater international attention to its internal problems, which subsequently raised the cost of maintaining institutionalized racial segregation. "Though these explanations are sensible and persuasive, the demography of the 1960s suggests a different kind of explanation," he writes.
Rosenfeld argues that in the 1960s, the growing numbers of young adults who left home to attend college and find work before they settled down to start families helped to catalyze change. "From civil rights to the antiwar movement … all [were] powered and led by college students, recent college graduates, college dropouts, and a broadly radical youth culture," he writes. "This kind of radical and activist youth culture had never existed quite this way before because the independent life stage gave young people not only greater freedom to object and dissent, but also the social and physical space to protest and disrupt." Parents no longer exerted the same level of control that previous generations had exercised over their children, a reality that eventually extended to their choice of partners.
Immigration and the rising median age of marriage since 1965 also supported the growth of nontraditional unions in America, Rosenfeld says. Recent Hispanic and Asian immigrants were not as segregated residentially from non-Hispanic whites as were African Americans, making it possible for these groups to socialize in their communities. Improved race relations in the post-civil rights era also supported the increase of marriages between blacks and whites during this period. "Polls show that the percentage of Americans who want interracial marriage to be illegal has declined precipitously since the early 1970s, and there is much higher acceptance of interracial unions than at any time in the past 200 years," Rosenfeld says in a briefing paper released in March by the independent Council on Contemporary Families.
In the 1950s, during the baby boom, the median age of first-time marriage dropped to an all-time low of about 19-20 years old. From the mid-1960s onward, that figure started to rise and, today, Americans wait longer than ever in history to marry for the first time. In 2005, half of U.S.-born women aged 26.5 and half of men aged 28.2 had never married. As a result, young adults have had greater exposure to different kinds of potential partners than their grandparents, who may have been able to choose only from among fellow high school students or residents of their segregated communities.
Furthermore, during the last four decades, middle-class American parents have raised their children in preparation for the independent life stage, Rosenfeld says. "We don't have great census data on that but, as far as we can tell, there's been a revolution in the way that parents raise children, which is to prepare them to go out on their own," he says. "This means you have to raise them to be a little more tolerant of other people and to think for themselves. They're going to have to rely on their own moxie. So they're raised to be a little more free-thinking, even though most of these children are going to end up in traditional unions—namely, same race, heterosexual unions."
It is this break from the past—the opportunity to leave home, attend college and find work, the later age of first marriage and consequent exposure to a broader selection of potential mates—that Rosenfeld argues has fundamentally affected the type of families young adults form. "I hypothesize that interracial unions and same-sex unions are part of a continuum of nontraditional union forms that have been increasing over time for many of the same reasons," he writes.
Rosenfeld notes that the majority opinion in the 2003 Supreme Court decision of Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state laws against private consensual homosexual sex, and an amicus brief in the same case both make explicit reference to Loving v. Virginia. "The court's argument in both cases was that consenting adults have rights to private intimate relationships regardless of whether those relationships offend local norms and values," he writes.
Just as opposition to interracial marriage has lessened over time, Rosenfeld hypothesizes in The Age of Independence that same-sex unions will become accepted and legalized as younger Americans come of age. "Homophobia will not disappear," he concludes. "The civil rights victories of the 1960s did not eliminate racism from the United States. … [However,] by the middle of the 21st century, homosexuality may still be controversial but same-sex marriage will likely have been legal for some time."