Intermarriage In The Second Generation: Choosing Between Newcomers And Natives
This article originally appeared on Migration Information Source October 2006.
The patterns of intermarriage across race and generation suggest that levels of racial intermarriage are strongly affected both by the differing opportunities and preferences for intermarriage within each generation and each ethnic/racial group. Levels of intermarriage are low among the first generation for all women. Except for Asian women, well over 90 percent of foreign-born women have husbands of the same racial or ethnic origins as themselves.
The low levels of intermarriage in the first generation are followed by higher levels of intermarriage in the second generation for all nonwhite women. Among Asians and Hispanics, the increase in levels of intermarriage continues into the third generation. For Asian and Hispanic women, then, the pattern fits the expectations generated by the "straight-line" assimilation theory, with steady increases in intermarriage across generations.
The picture differs for white women and black women. Levels of intermarriage among white women are relatively steady across generations, hovering around five percent. The steadiness can be attributed to the large numbers of whites in the American population — all else being equal, levels of intermarriage are always lowest among members of larger groups.
White foreign-born women are unlikely to be married to a man outside their ethnic/racial group because many arrive in the United States already married. Second- and third-generation white women are likely to meet and marry a native-born white man because the white population is still, by far, the largest racial group in the United States.
It is more difficult to explain why levels of intermarriage among blacks are substantially higher among the second generation than among the third-generation. Perhaps second-generation black women who grew up in a household with at least one foreign-born parent are less affected by the accumulation of racial discrimination in the American context and thus more open to marrying someone of another race. Second-generation blacks may also be more likely or be more able to emphasize their national or regional origins, e.g., Trinidadian, in lieu of identifying themselves as American-born black or African American.
Another possible reason for the gap is that second-generation black women are more likely than third-generation black women to live in major metropolitan areas, to have higher levels of education, and to have a racially complex ancestry — all attributes that lead to racial intermarriage.
And, finally, this result could be an anomaly generated by a small sample size: the level of intermarriage among second-generation black women is based on only 70 cases.
Since the results for men parallel those for women, those statistics are not presented here. Foreign-born men are very likely to have spouses of the same racial and ethnic origins as themselves. For Asian and Hispanic men, levels of intermarriage increase between the first and second, and the second and third generations. Levels of intermarriage among white men hover at low levels in every generation while levels of intermarriage among second-generation black men are higher than among first- or third-generation black men.
The next way to examine the data is by separating those with one foreign-born and one native-born parent from those with two foreign-born parents. The presumption is that those who grew up with two foreign-born parents identify more strongly with their racial and ethnic origins and so have stronger preferences for in-group marriage than those with one foreign-born and one native-born parent.
Second-generation Americans with one foreign-born and one native-born parent are also more highly educated and earn more than those with two foreign-born parents. This segment of the second generation is generally more integrated into American society.
In addition, many respondents with one foreign-born parent and one native-born parent are the children of racially intermarried parents, because marriages involving one immigrant and one native-born American spouse are likely to be interracial. Individuals with racially complex backgrounds are more open to the prospect of racial intermarriage than others.
Figure 2 shows that all racial/ethnic minority women with only one foreign-born parent and one native-born American parent are, in fact, more likely to be racially intermarried than second-generation women with two foreign-born parents. The same is true for men: racial/ethnic minority men with only one foreign-born parent are more likely to be racially intermarried than second-generation men with two foreign-born parents.
About half of Asian women with one foreign-born and one native-born parent, for example, are in interracial marriages versus a quarter of Asian women with two foreign-born parents. Asian women with one foreign-born and one native-born parent may be particularly likely to be intermarried because they are likely to be the daughters of Asian "war brides" and (white) American-born men who served in the military.
The difference in levels of intermarriage for second-generation women with two foreign-born parents versus those with one foreign-born and one native-born parent introduces complexities associated with "cross-generation" marriage.
The "straight-line" theory of assimilation presumes that marriage occurs within each generational cohort: immigrants marry other immigrants, members of the second generation marry other members of the second generation, and so on. This assumption is, however, simplistic.
Figure 3 shows the percentages of second-generation women of each racial/ethnic group with first-generation, second-generation, and third-generation husbands. Overall, relatively few second-generation women have second-generation husbands: the majority marry either first-generation or third-generation men.
However, there are striking differences across racial/ethnic groups. Over 75 percent of white second-generation women marry into the third generation. Black second-generation women are also very likely to marry into the third generation although some marry foreign-born men.
Hispanic second-generation women are fairly balanced with respect to marrying foreign-born, second-generation, or third-generation American men. Asian second-generation women are more apt than other women to marry someone of the same generational status as themselves.
The second generation thus appears poised between marrying either immigrants or third-generation Americans rather than other second-generation Americans. This pattern may be attributable to demographic constraints.
The adult second generation is still relatively small and so it is easier for white and black second-generation adults to marry into the very large third generation than to find prospective spouses among the smaller numbers of first- and second-generation white adults.
For second-generation Asians and Hispanics, the continuing high levels of immigration to the United States mean that the first generation is also fairly large.
The marriage behavior of the second generation lies betwixt and between that of the first and the third generations in two ways. Levels of racial and ethnic intermarriage increase substantially between the first and second generations for black, Asian, and Hispanic Americans, and increase again between the second and third generations for Asian and Hispanic Americans.
Even when the focus is narrowed to differences within the second generation, levels of intermarriage increase as the distance from the immigrant experience lengthens. Second-generation Americans with one foreign-born parent and one native-born parent (who were thus in a cross-generation marriage) are more likely to marry interracially than those who grew up with two immigrant parents.
The second generation is also poised between reaching back into the first generation or reaching forward into the third generation for spouses. Currently, only a minority of second-generation Americans are married to other second-generation Americans. This pattern probably reflects, in part, the relatively small size of the second generation, which is sandwiched between a very large number of third-and-later-generation Americans, and, for Hispanics and Asians, a growing number of immigrants.
The increases in rates of racial/ethnic intermarriage across generation, and the common pattern in which members of the second generation marry third-generation Americans, suggest that Asians and Hispanics are being quickly integrated into the larger American-born population.
Intermarriage is often considered to be one of the most important signs of assimilation and integration of immigrant-descent groups for several reasons. First, high levels of intermarriage demonstrate and accelerate the fading of cultural and social boundaries between immigrant descent groups and the larger American population. Second, high levels of intermarriage are also typically accompanied by growing similarities in the educational and labor force achievements of immigrant groups and the larger American population.
Gordon composed his theory of "straight-line" assimilation after observing marriage behavior among European-descent groups in the first part of the 20th century. The data presented here show that the two largest contemporary immigrant descent groups in the United States, Asians and Hispanics, are following the same generational patterns of intermarriage today.
Gordon, Milton M. 1964. Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gillian Stevens, Mary E. M. McKillip and Hiromi Ishizawa are the authors of "Intermarriage In The Second Generation: Choosing Between Newcomers And Natives. They are currently working for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and their research interests include language, intermarriage, and immigration to the United States.
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