Intimate relationships between races more common than thought

March 23, 2000

Intimate relationships between races more common than thought

LOS ANGELES—Intimate partnerships between the races—estimated at more than 5 percent of all marriages in the United States—are much more prevalent when cohabitation is also considered, according to a University of Michigan study presented here today (March 23) at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America .

While 25 percent of married Asian women have white husbands, for example, nearly 45 percent of cohabiting Asian women have white partners. And while 17 percent of married Latino women have white husbands, about 22 percent of cohabiting Latino women live with white men,

The study was conducted by David R. Harris and Hiromi Ono, both sociologists at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization.

For the study, Harris and Ono analyzed 1990 U.S. census data for Black, white, Asian and Latino couples between the ages of 18 and 30, who were either married or living together.

“Cohabitations are not a trivial share of young people’s unions,” Harris and Ono report. “Among the four racial groups we examined, about one in six unions is a cohabitation. Just over 16 percent of unions for Asians, Latinos, and whites are cohabitations, and more than 25 percent of unions for Blacks. So focusing exclusively on interracial marriages, as most previous research has done, seriously underestimates the extent of intimate contact between the races.”

In general, whites and Blacks were much more likely than Asians and Hispanics both to marry and to cohabit with their own racial group, the researchers found. But within each racial group, there were slightly different patterns, depending on gender as well as type of union.

While almost 96 percent of married white women have white husbands, the researchers found, fewer than 93 percent of cohabiting white women live with white men. White women are 3.5 times as likely to live with Black men as to be married to them, and they’re also more likely to live with than marry Asians and Hispanics.

About 96 percent of married Black women are married to Black men, compared with about 94 percent of cohabiting Black women who live with Black men. But while Black women are more likely to live with than marry white and Hispanic men, they are no more likely to marry Asian men than to live with them.

About 69 percent of married Asian women are married to Asian men, while 25 percent of married Asian women have white husbands. “But as common as marriages are between Asian women and white men, cohabitations are even more prevalent,” says Ono. “In fact, Asian women are more likely to be living with white men than with Asian men. Nearly 45 percent of cohabiting Asian women have white partners, while less than 43 percent have Asian partners.”

About 80 percent of married Latino women have Latino husbands, the researchers found, but only 73 percent of cohabiting Latino women have Latino partners. About 22 percent of Latino women are living with white men, compared with 17 percent who are married to white men.

In their analysis, the researchers also assessed patterns in interracial relationships for males. “Perhaps because of their position at the pinnacle of racial and gender hierarchies, white men appear much less willing than white women to enter into relationships with Blacks,” they note. “Only six-tenths of 1 percent of cohabiting white men live with Blacks, for example, while about 2 percent of cohabiting white women live with Black men. In contrast, about 12.5 percent of cohabiting Black males live with a white partner, compared with almost 4 percent of cohabiting Black women.”

In general, the researchers found that Black, white, Asian, and Latino men and women consistently choose to cohabit with people who are different from the people they marry. For all of these groups, cohabiting unions are more likely to be interracial than are marriages.

“Our findings suggest that there is much greater intimate contact between the races than marriage data imply,” says Harris. “Consequently, the social distance between racial groups is not as great as other studies suggest it is.”

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world’s oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information.

Microsoft Word document containing charts related to this study.

Population Association of AmericaDavid R. HarrisSurvey of Consumer Attitudescharts related to this study.