Love Is Colorblind...Or Is It?

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People are more likely to live with a partner of another race than they are to marry them, according to a study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

"Consistent with the hypothesis that cohabitations represent a less formal union, and thus are often entered into with people who are not suitable for marriage," write sociologists David R. Harris and Hiromi Ono, "we find black, white, Asian, and Latino men and women consistently choose to cohabit with people who are different from the people they marry."

Analyzing 1990 U.S. Census data for black, white, Asian, and Latino couples aged 18 to 30, Harris and Ono find that more than 16 percent of Asian, Latino, and white unions and more than 25 percent of black unions are cohabitations, not marriages. Thus, studies that ignore interracial couples who are "just living together" significantly underestimate the extent of intimate interracial contact that occurs, they say.

While almost 96 percent of married white women have white husbands, for example, less than 93 percent of cohabiting white women live with white men. In comparison, white women are almost three times as likely to live with a black man than to marry him. Black women are about one-and-a-half times as likely to cohabit with a white man than they are to marry him. The same is true for the Hispanic community: 80 percent of married Latino women have Latino husbands, but only 73 percent of cohabiting Latino women have Latino partners.

Asian women have the greatest tendency to marry outside their race - one out of four is married to a white man. But cohabitation with men outside their racial group is even more prevalent: more cohabiting Asian women (45 percent) live with white men than with men of any other racial group, including their own.

Gender plays a big role, especially among non-white populations. Nearly 7 percent of married black men have white spouses, whereas only 2 percent of married black women do. And almost 13 percent of cohabiting black men have white partners, compared to 4 percent of black women. On the other hand, 79 percent of Asian men have Asian spouses, while only 69 percent of Asian women do. Asian men are much more likely to live with a white partner (37 percent) than to marry her (16 percent).

As cohabitation becomes more socially acceptable, both as a trial-run for and an alternative to marriage, couples who live together must be included in counts and analyses of interracial relationships. "Cohabitations are not all transitory. Many are long-term, and many are raising children," says Harris. "Our findings suggest that there is much greater intimate contact between the races than marriage data imply. The social distance between racial groups is not as great as other studies suggest it is."

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