Op-Ed: Can intermarriage spare California from America’s identity politics?

Close-up of two people's clasped hands, one Black and one white, over a wooden table
(Richard Bailey / Getty Images)

The boundaries of Americans’ partisan identities now predominantly overlap with the boundaries of our personal identities. As a result, American politics are now profoundly connected to questions of “who we are” and, not surprisingly, intransigent.

In researching the politics of six of the world’s “majority minority” societies — where one or more racial or religious minority groups have come to outnumber the majority group over time — I noted tribalized politics that can resemble our own. And I’ve found that whether their diverse communities coexist or conflict has a lot to do with the choices of governments and influential leaders.

While the same is true in the U.S., there is something individuals can do (which no fearmongering politician can stop) to fight the toxic division shredding America’s social fabric: Build relationships with people different from you.


Relationships and marriages between people from different racial or religious communities blur the boundaries that otherwise separate diverse societies and foil political campaigns and policies that aim to divide. When multiethnic or multi-religious populations mix and intermarry, they are less likely to vilify opponents, making it more likely that partisan fault lines will shift away from racial and religious identities to other sources of affinity — such as policy preferences.

Legally, California pioneered the idea of intermarriage in the United States. In Perez vs. Sharp, the California Supreme Court struck down state laws that prohibited marriages between white people and racial minorities. The 1948 decision, which ruled that the discriminatory laws violated constitutional requirements of due process and equal protection, preceded the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of interracial marriage in Loving vs. Virginia by 19 years. According to the Pew Research Center‘s most recent review of U.S. Census Bureau data, nearly half of the U.S. metropolitan areas with the most intermarriages are in California.

At the time of the Loving decision, about 3% of U.S. marriages were between people who identify with different races or ethnic groups. By 2015, the rate increased to 17% of American newlyweds. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, 22% of newlyweds intermarried, as well as 28% in San Diego, 29% in Stockton, and 30% in the Santa Barbara and Santa Maria region.

According to Pew, 5 out of 6 American interracial marriages today involve one partner who identifies as white. The most common racial or ethnic pairings among these newlywed couples is one Hispanic and one white spouse (42%) and one white and one Asian spouse (15%). White/Black newlyweds make up 11% of intermarriages.

Despite the growth of intergroup marriages and people who identify as mixed-race, the extent of intergroup contact in the U.S. is still small. New research from Ipsos Public Affairs shows that 57% of Americans have not even shared a meal with someone of a different race in the last year. Only 14% of Americans report that they have shared meals with at least one person from every major U.S. racial group in the last year.

Across the world’s wealthiest democracies, Americans most frequently report the strongest conflict between people who support opposing political parties and between people of different racial backgrounds. Fifty-point gaps separate Democratic and Republican public opinion on questions about the character of various groups such as immigrants, Muslims and Black people. Only when these gaps shrink will politicians be more likely to focus on wedge issues not grounded in racial or religious differences. But people who at least share some meals with racial or partisan outgroups are more likely to believe that Americans can reconcile their differences.


However, even the experiences of the multiracial children of interracial marriages are, well, mixed.

On the one hand, multiracial people’s social position between the white American majority and minority groups defies binary characterizations of the nation. Multiracial people believe their heritage has made them more open to other cultures, and psychologists find that immersion in multiracial communities reduces white people’s propensity to generalize about race. There is also evidence that white people find news about mixed-race marriage and multiracialism far less threatening than narratives about the nation’s demographic change to a majority minority society.

On the other hand, multiracial Americans still face substantial discrimination and they are often pressured to identify with one group or another. They may have their sense of identity or belonging ignored by people with whom they co-identify, or be doubted by strangers.

Despite its extraordinary diversity, California’s politics remain subject to the same racial boundaries that vex the rest of the United States. One reason why may be that the state’s diversity is concentrated in major cities and still separated by neighborhood-level segregation. Another reason is that Californians, despite their independent streak, are not shielded from the national discourse that reinforces the significance of racial differences.

If California is to transcend American identity politics, we must redefine or push aside the social boundaries that currently divide us.

Progress will come when more Americans come to see this nation in the way multiracial people see themselves — as indivisible.


Justin Gest is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author, most recently, of “Majority Minority.”