Boundary Blurring? Racial Identification among the Children of Interracial Couples (Daniel T. Lichter and Zhenchao Qian)


1. This article uses data, pooled annually, from the 2008 to 2014 American Community Survey (ACS) to document (1) recent fertility patterns among interracially married couples and (2) the racial or ethnic identification of the children from interracial marriages. We find that a sizable minority of America's children from mixed-race marriages are identified by their parents as monoracial, which suggests that mixed-race children are seriously underreported. Moreover, the assignment of race is highly uneven across interracial marriages comprising husbands and wives with different racial backgrounds. For America's children, their reported racial identities in the ACS reflect a kind of racial “tug-of-war” between fathers and mothers, who bring their own racial and cultural identities to marriages. The status or power of parents is often unequal, and this is played out in children's racial identification. For example, parents from minority populations in interracial marriages often have fewer claims on the race of their children. The racial and ethnic identities of children from these marriages, at a minimum, are highly subjective and complex.

2. Keywords: intermarriage; race; ethnicity; diversity; racial identity; family; children


3. The share of all U.S. marriages involving partners with different racial and ethnic backgrounds has risen sharply over the past few decades (Qian and Lichter 2011; Lee and Bean 2010). According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 17 percent of all newly married couples were interracial or interethnic (Livingstone and Brown 2017). The clear implication of this finding is that racial and ethnic boundaries are weakening. In the case of interracial marriage, partners presumably define one another as equals, even if they occupy different places in America's racial or ethnic hierarchy. This has been defined historically along a white-Black continuum (Frank, Akresh, and Lu 2010) or by a tripartite classification with America's nonBlack, nonwhite populations occupying a middle category (Bonilla-Silva 2004). Rising interracial dating, cohabitation, and marriage are thus seen as evidence both of improving racial and ethnic relations and declining social distance between the white majority and different minority populations (Qian and Lichter 2007; Lichter, Qian, and Tumin 2015). The past several decades have been marked by a new openness in attitudes and receptivity to interracial marriages (Herman and Campbell 2012).

4. In the case of America's children, the fluidity of racial and ethnic identity is further complicated by the fact that parents initially define their children's racial and ethnic identity (Brunsma 2005; Qian 2004; Gullickson and Morning 2011). Children's racial identity, at least how it is measured in government reports, may depend heavily on situational or contextual circumstances that have little or nothing to do with how children are perceived by others (on the basis of phenotype) or even how children see themselves as they grow up (Vargas and Kingsbury 2016). For example, the classification of children's racial identity may depend on the idiosyncratic race and sex combinations of parents (e.g., BLACK male and white female parents as opposed to white male and BLACK female parents). The commonplace reference to racial self-identification is a misnomer for children if parents assign racial designations. Who answers the race and Hispanic origin questions on government surveys clearly matters not only in defining whether the children of interracial couples are classified as monoracial or multiracial, but which racial group or groups are imposed upon them. This racial designation may or may not correspond to how these children define themselves later as adolescents or young adults (Liebler et al. 2017).

5. We also restrict the sample to interracial couples, where ethnoracial categories include Hispanics, non-Hispanic whites (hereafter whites), non-Hispanic BLACKs (hereafter BLACKs), American Indians, Asians, and persons who self-identify as multiracial. For our purposes, we first distinguish Hispanics (of all races) from other racial groups as defined broadly by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). These are parents who self-identify as Hispanic; the remaining non-Hispanic populations are defined as white, BLACK, Asian, and American Indian. By cross-classifying the race of each parent in a 5x5 table, we compare the percentage having a child in the past year and number of children born by marriage type (defined by each cell of the table). The cells on the diagonal of the table comprise the children of racially homogamous unions, while the off-diagonal cells identify children of interracial marriages. Our sample is restricted to children who were born after their parents married (i.e., age of children is less than or equal to marital duration in years). This ensures that the children are the biological children of both spouses. The ACS provides a unique opportunity to evaluate how intermarried parents identify the race and ethnicity of their biological children.

6. Overall, these data suggest that fertility is moderately lower in white-minority marriages, except when white women marry men from high-fertility groups. 1 This pattern is also apparent among BLACK women who intermarry. They have lower fertility than in BLACK-Black marriages, except in the case of marriages to Hispanic and American Indian men. Asian homogamous marriages have the highest rates of past-year fertility (19.4 percent). When Asian men are married to Hispanic women (20.4 percent) and American Indian women (30.8 percent), past-year fertility is especially high.

7. In fact, the data in Table 2 show that when minority spouses are listed as the householder or are male, the children of interracial marriages are more likely to be identified as minority than white. For example, among BLACK-white couples, 17.8 percent of the children are identified as BLACK when the minority spouse is male versus only 10.8 percent when the minority spouse is female. When the BLACK spouse is listed as the householder, 19.1 percent of children are identified as BLACK compared with only 12.8 percent when the householder is white. For children, marital power--as measured by householder status and gender--seemingly influences how children are identified and classified by their parents. This is a potentially important issue given that interracial pairings are asymmetrical in the shares of minority men (e.g., BLACK men married to white women, versus the opposite pattern). 3

8. Mixed-race minority spouses may have less personal stake in identifying their children's race, especially if they have a white spouse (the sample we focus on here). Indeed, biracial spouses (who are in most cases partially white) in interracial marriages are far more likely to identify their children as monoracial white than as a racial minority (columns 5-6, Table 2). In the case of BLACK-white marriages, for example, 29.0 percent of the children were identified as white if their minority parent was biracial. This compares with only 8.3 percent if the BLACK minority parent was monoracial. A similar pattern of racial identification was evident regardless of white-minority pairings. In each racial pairing, roughly 30 percent of the children were identified as monoracial white. Still, biracial Indian and Hispanic parents are far more likely to report their children as mixed-race in comparison to their monoracial counterparts. This reporting pattern may have roots in the long history of conquest and oppression that has brought added racial and cultural awareness and sensitivity to miscegenation among America's Indian and Hispanic populations.

9. A more general lesson drawn from these data (last column, Table 2) is that surprisingly large shares of American children are identified by their interracially married parents as monoracial. By definition, these children should be reported as multiracial, with the races of both parents listed. However, 72.5 percent of children born to BLACK-white interracial couples are identified as multiracial. The other 27.5 percent are classified as monoracial BLACK (15.7) or monoracial white (11.8 percent). Whether these children will similarly define themselves as mixed-race as adults is an empirical question. Similarly, 25.9 percent of children born to Asian-white couples are classified as either monoracial Asian (8.0) or monoracial white (17.9). The contrast from BLACK-white couples is that Asian-white couples are more likely to identify their children as white than as minority. In contrast, the children of Indian-white couples have the lowest percentage classified as biracial. More than one-half are either classified as American Indian or white only.

10. in this section, we examine the ambiguous or fluid nature of racial identity of the children of interracially married couples. Our results suggest that children's racial and ethnic identity is “negotiated” by parents, who bring different racial backgrounds and interpersonal resources that influence assigning race or ethnicity to their children. Indeed, patterns of racial assignment of children differ across couples with different racial mixes. For example, the results in Table 3 highlight high percentages of BLACK-white couples who identify their children as monoracial BLACK rather than white, regardless of education level (a result consistent with the “one-drop” rule, whereby partly BLACK Americans historically have been regarded as part of the BLACK population). This pattern contrasts with other minority-white racial pairings, where children are more likely than the children of BLACK-white couples to be identified as white at each education level (of the minority spouse).

11. se that higher educational attainment of minority spouses (Black and Asian spouses in particular) is associated with larger percentages of children classified as biracial rather than monoracial white or minority. For the children of Asian-white marriages, for example, roughly one-quarter are identified as monoracial white if the Asian spouse is poorly educated, compared with only 15 percent if the Asian parent has a postgraduate degree. This pattern is also true for BLACKs in interracial marriages with whites. More education of the BLACK spouse is associated with larger percentages of children identified as biracial. There is little if any evidence that increases in education among the BLACK spouses are associated with larger percentages of children identified as monoracial BLACK. For Hispanics, a college education is strongly linked to identifying children as “white.” This clear educational gradient in white racial reporting is also observed among American Indians who are married to whites.

12. Racial identity may also be contextual; that is, parental reports on race may depend on the racial composition of the cities and communities in which they live. Racial and ethnic diversity is much greater in metropolitan than non-metropolitan areas, despite large increases in diversity throughout America (Lee and Sharp 2017). One possibility is that interracial couples may report their children as mixed-race or even monoracial minorities if they live in metropolitan areas. But evidence for this hypothesis is equivocal. For example, as expected, the children of BLACK-white marriages are more likely to be defined as mixed-race if they live in metropolitan areas; and among the children who are identified as monoracial, a slightly larger share in metropolitan than nonmetropolitan areas (i.e., 57 to 53 percent) were identified as BLACK. Among Asian-white marriages, however, the opposite pattern was true: smaller shares of children were identified as monoracial in metropolitan areas than nonmetropolitan areas; and very similar percentages of all monoracial children in metropolitan area (7.9/25.4, or 31 percent) and nonmetropolitan areas (9.3/32.5, or 29 percent) are identified as Asian only.

13. Our analyses, based on data for newborn children from the ACS, suggest several specific conclusions. Interracial marriages--and subsequent fertility--are clearly making the measurement of mixed-race populations an increasingly important task. The mixed-race population of children is underestimated by conventional approaches based on parents' own reports. Indeed, as we have shown here, substantial shares of America's children from mixed-race marriages are identified by their parents as monoracial. On its face, this suggests that mixed-race children are seriously underreported, as it has always been in the past. The full extent, of course, is largely unknown because parents themselves often underestimate (e.g., the “one-drop” rule in the case of AFRICAN AMERICANS) or misrepresent racial mixing in their own family backgrounds or genealogies (Perez and Hirschman 2009). Moreover, how parents classify their children's race is highly uneven across intermarriages distinguished by the differing ethno-racial combinations of husbands and wives. Our results seemingly suggest that children's racial identity reflects a kind of racial “tug-of-war” between parents who bring their own racial and cultural identities to marriages. The status or power of parents is often unequal, and this is played out in how children are identified. Parents from some minority populations seemingly have fewer claims on the race of their children. The racial and ethnic identities of children of interracial marriages, at a minimum, are highly subjective and complex.


 II: Change across the Generations after Immigration