Broken Boundaries or Broken Marriages? Racial Intermarriage and Divorce
Vincent Kang Fu and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, University of Utah
Published in Social Science Quarterly, 2011, 92:1096-1117
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 1
Broken Boundaries or Broken Marriages?
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce in the United States
Several recent studies have investigated the consequences of racial intermarriage for
marital stability. None of these studies control for first-order racial differences in divorce risk,
therefore failing to uniquely identify the effect of intermarriage. Our paper builds on an earlier
generation of studies to develop a model that appropriately identifies the consequences of
crossing racial boundaries in matrimony. We analyze 1995 and 2002 National Survey of Family
Growth data and find elevated divorce rates for Latino/White intermarriages but not for
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 2
Broken Boundaries or Broken Marriages?
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce in the United States
Does racial intermarriage lead to divorce? Over a century of scholarly inquiry
emphasizes the challenges faced by couples who cross racial boundaries in matrimony (Baber,
1937; Barron, 1951; Bratter & Eschbach, 2006; Cheng & Yamamura, 1957; DuBois, 1899;
Hohmann-Marriot & Amato, 2008; Root, 2001; Monahan, 1966, 1970, 1971; Zhang & Van
Hook, 2009). Most recent studies find that intermarriages have higher divorce rates (Bramlett &
Mosher, 2002; Bratter & King, 2008; Heaton, 2002; Jones, 1996; Kalmijn et al., 2005; Phillips &
Sweeney, 2006), but this conclusion is not universal (Zhang & Van Hook, 2009).
Earlier studies have several limitations. Most important, studies fail to identify whether
intermarried couples have uniquely high divorce rates because they do not account for first-order
racial differences in divorce propensities (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Bratter & King, 2008;
Heaton, 2002; Kalmijn et al., 2005; Phillips & Sweeney, 2006; Zhang & Van Hook, 2009).
Many studies also do not distinguish the different types of racially intermarried couples
(Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Jones, 1996; Heaton, 2002; Sweeney & Phillips, 2004). Some are
not focused specifically on racial intermarriage and divorce (e.g., Bramlett & Mosher, 2002;
Heaton, 2002; Phillips & Sweeney, 2006).
Our study pools data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) Cycles 5 and 6
(Groves et al., 2005; Kelly et al., 1997) to investigate differences in divorce rates between
Black/White, Latino/White, and same-race couples. These data were collected in 1995 and 2002
and therefore provide relatively recent information. We discuss overlooked methodological
challenges in determining whether intermarriages have uniquely high divorce rates and respond
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 3
with a model that resolves the identification problem that limited earlier studies. Finally, we
present results and their implications for thinking about racial boundaries.
In 1970 there were about 900,000 interracial and Latino/non-Latino couples in America.
This figure increased over fivefold, to 4,900,000, by 2000 (Lee & Edmonston, 2005). There
have been corresponding increases in the number of children being raised by interracial and
Latino/non-Latino parents. In 1970 these children numbered 1,700,000. Three decades later
5,400,000 were living with interracial or Latino/non-Latino parents (Lee & Edmonston, 2005).
These figures underscore the growing importance of studying the stability of interracial unions.
Intermarriage, Social Support Deficits, and Incompatibility
Theories of divorce generally emphasize the effects of family of origin, individual
characteristics, social context, and husband-wife interaction (Larson & Holman, 1994). The
latter two emphases provide the basis for most theories proposed to account for the higher
divorce rate of intermarriages (Kalmijn et al., 2005). First, opposition from third parties may
reduce the social support afforded to intermarried couples. Family members may have a strong
interest in passing on racial and ethnic identities, traditions, and values. Perhaps some parents
and relatives fear that intermarried couples will be less able to pass on a group’s way of life.
Marriage also organizes the transfer of property from parents and grandparents to offspring.
Older generations may be less willing to share financial and other resources with members of
other racial groups. These challenges leave intermarried couples vulnerable to divorce because
of reduced social and material support.
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 4
Research on social support for intermarried couples is scarce, although one study does
find that diminished parental support lowers relationship quality for intermarried couples
(Hohmann-Marriott & Amato, 2008). On the other hand, opposition to intermarriage is well
documented. Legal restrictions against racial intermarriage in the U.S. were not completely
abolished until the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia. As late as 1994, a full 49
percent of White Americans expressed disapproval of White/Black intermarriage (Schuman et
al., 1997), although by 2000 only 22 percent of Americans felt the same way(Johnson and
Jacobson 2005). Even today some people disapprove of interracial marriage: on October 16,
2009 a Louisiana justice of the peace made national news for refusing to marry a White/Black
couple (Foster 2009). Qualitative and historical studies also document strong opposition to
Black/White intermarriage (e.g., Childs, 2005; Romano, 2003; Root, 2001) and Latino/non-
Latino (Wieling, 2003). Mixed couples report reactions ranging from lukewarm acceptance to
outright hostility from family members (McNamara et al. 1999). Although overt hostility from
the general public has become less common, intermarried couples still experience consistent
violations of public civility, ranging from poor service in stores and restaurants to sneers and
disapproving stares (Romano, 2003).
The second main argument for lower marital stability among intermarried couples is
based on social psychological theories of interpersonal attraction (Clarkwest, 2007). The
“effectance-arousal” model (Byrne, 1971) implies that homogamy is common because similarity
in tastes, values, and world-views enhances marital intimacy. Social psychologists also argue
that similarity enhances interpersonal interaction (Burleson & Denton, 1992); conversely,
differences in values and cultural orientations may undermine marital stability and satisfaction
(Pasley et al., 2001). Regardless of the precise mechanism, substantial evidence supports the
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 5
claim that similarity benefits marital stability and satisfaction (e.g., Larson & Holman, 1994).
For instance, Clarkwest (2007) found that differences in attitudes toward fertility and domestic
tasks raise divorce rates. Gaunt (2006) showed that similarity in personality traits and values
increases marital satisfaction.
We know of only one study that has documented value differences for intermarried
couples (Hohmann-Marriott & Amato, 2008). However, a great deal of research documents
racial differences in a wide range of attitudes and values. Black men have less conservative
attitudes than White men regarding women’s employment, whereas Latino men are more
conservative than White men when it comes to the gender division of labor (Ciabattari, 2001).
Blacks hold more critical attitudes toward gender stratification than Whites (Kane, 1992).
Blacks and Whites disagree about a variety of social issues, such as racial inequality and
discrimination (e.g., Hochschild, 1995). Qualitative work also provides evidence of within-
couple differences in values, interests, and lifestyles that potentially weaken intermarriages
(Porterfield, 1978). These differences may be inconsequential and latent during the bliss of
courtship but become fault lines as a couple encounters the reality of marriage.
Although theoretical arguments for higher divorce rates among intermarried couples are
strong, it is nevertheless useful to consider the alternative hypothesis that intermarriage does not
produce uniquely high divorce rates. Some group boundaries may be sufficiently porous that
intermarriage does not violate any significant social norms; one example is intermarriage
between European ancestry groups in the U.S. Perhaps couples who do violate social norms by
intermarrying may only wed if they anticipate being able to successfully manage any difficulties
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 6
they eventually encounter, or if their families fully support the proposed marriage. Divorce rates
for these intermarried couples would then follow a pattern that researchers have labeled
convergence (Jones, 1994, 1996; Zhang & Van Hook, 2009), where “divorce propensities should
reflect a mix of the divorce rates for the two constituent origin groups” (Jones, 1996:213).
People bring their own attitudes, the norms of their population group, and their social
attributes–that is, their individual propensities for marital stability–into a union. The resulting
divorce rate for intermarried couples should be sum of the effects of husbands’ and wives’
characteristics (and nothing more). In other words, marriages between Black husbands and
White wives would be expected to have divorce rates that are the average of Black husbands’
divorces rates and White wives’ divorce rates.
In the U.S., racial differences in divorce rates are typically reported on the basis of the
wife’s race because women’s marital histories are far more reliable than men’s (Bumpass,
Martin, & Sweet, 1991; Mitchell, 2010). Black women divorce more than White women, who
in turn have higher divorce rates than Latinas (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002). Far less research
explores divorce rates by husband’s race (This is a noteworthy omission, since the lower
socioeconomic status of Black and Latino men might undermine marital stability.) Thus, under
the convergence hypothesis, Black/White divorce rates should fall between White/White and
Black/Black divorce rates because of the Black partner’s higher divorce propensity. If
convergence holds for Latino/White couples, they should have divorce rates higher than those of
endogamous Latino unions but lower than those of endogamous White couples.
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 7
Past Intermarriage Research
Research on interracial marriage and divorce dates back over 50 years (Cheng &
Yamamura, 1957). Social scientists have studied California (Rankin & Maneker, 1987), Hawaii
(Cheng & Yamamura, 1957; Ho & Johnson, 1990; Jones, 1996; Monahan, 1966; Schwertfeger,
1982), Iowa (Monahan, 1970), Kansas (Monahan, 1971), Australia (Jones, 1994), and the
Netherlands (Kalmijn et al., 2005). Only in recent years have studies employed national U.S.
data (Bratter & King, 2008; Zhang & Van Hook, 2009).
The theoretical consensus about the deleterious effect of racial intermarriage on marital
stability is generally supported by past research. Scholars have employed two analytic
strategies. The first, typically employed by earlier studies, compares the racial composition of
divorcing couples to the racial composition of couples marrying in preceding years. These
studies produce mixed findings, with three (Cheng & Yamamura, 1957; Jones, 1994; Monahan,
1971) finding higher divorce rates for intermarried couples and three (Ho & Johnson, 1990;
Monahan, 1966, 1970) showing no difference between intermarried and homogamous unions.
Recent studies are stronger, employing retrospective marital histories (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002;
Bratter & King, 2008; Heaton, 2002; Phillips & Sweeney, 2006), population registers (Kalmijn
et al. 2005), panel data (Zhang & Van Hook 2009), and vital statistics records (Jones, 1996;
Schwertfeger, 1982). These studies generally find more divorce among intermarried couples.
However, many are not specifically focused on the relationship between intermarriage and
divorce and do not distinguish among different racial combinations of spouses in mixed
marriages (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Heaton, 2002; Jones, 1996; Phillips & Sweeney, 2006).
Two recent studies are noteworthy because they focus explicitly on racial intermarriage
and divorce. Bratter and King (2008) use National Survey of Family Growth data from 2002
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 8
and report mixed findings on the effect of crossing racial boundaries on divorce. Zhang and Van
Hook (2009) employ 1990-2001 Survey of Income and Program Participation data and find no
evidence that intermarried couples have higher rates of marital dissolution. These studies and
others (e.g., Kalmijn et al., 2005; Lehrer & Chiswick, 1993 on religious intermarriage) share a
conventional approach for assessing the effect of intermarriage on divorce: they directly
compare the divorce rates of interracial and same-race couples, ascertaining, for example,
whether divorce rates of marriages between Black wives and White husbands differ from those
of Black/Black and White/White couples.
This approach is inadequate because it does not uniquely identify the effect of racial
intermarriage on divorce. In the above example, marriages between Black wives and White
husbands differ from White/White couples in two respects: (1) wife’s race and (2) the crossing
of a racial boundary. Either could be responsible for the higher divorce rate. Divorce rate
differentials could be attributable to either of these two differences. In order to uniquely identify
the effect of intermarriage, a statistical model must control for first-order racial differences in
divorce propensities by fully controlling for husband’s and wife’s race. Only then can the effect
of crossing a racial boundary be uniquely identified.
Given that racial groups differ in their divorce propensities, the observed divorce rate for
Black/White couples should be compared to the Black/White divorce rate expected by the
convergence hypothesis, which states that crossing racial boundaries has no effect on divorce.
Only if the observed Black/White divorce rate exceeds the expected rate (based on additive
contributions from Black and White spouses) can one conclude that intermarriage actually
elevates divorce rates.
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 9
This point has been made in other contexts. Heaton (1984) criticizes Glenn’s (1982)
study of religious homogamy and marital satisfaction on these grounds. Glenn’s study makes
the conventional comparisons of marital satisfaction between Protestant/Protestant couples and
Protestant/Other couples. Heaton argues that Glenn’s comparisons are inadequate because it is
necessary to examine “the effects of homogamy while simultaneously controlling the influence
of husband’s and wife’s religion on marital satisfaction” (Heaton, 1984: 729-30).
Another example is Bumpass and Sweet’s (1972) classic paper on divorce rate
differentials. They examine the effects of age, educational, and religious homogamy on divorce,
hypothesizing that age, education, and religious differences contribute to elevated divorce rates.
They sought to determine whether divorce rates were due to the effects of these differences or
merely the additive result of husbands’ and wives’ characteristics. To accomplish this Bumpass
and Sweet compared observed divorce rates of heterogamous couples with expected divorce
rates under an additive model for effects of husbands’ and wives’ characteristics. When the
observed divorce rates exceeded the expected additive rate, they concluded that heterogamy
increases marital dissolution.
Our paper follows Bumpass and Sweet and Heaton by uniquely identifying the effect of
crossing racial boundaries on divorce, distinguishing this effect from the individual contributions
of spouses of different races. For example, the divorce rate for White/White couples is modeled
as the product of contributions from White husbands and White wives. The divorce rate for
Black/Black couples is modeled as the product of contributions from Black husbands and Black
wives. Thus, the expected divorce rate under the convergence perspective for marriages between
Black wives and White husbands is the sum of contributions from Black wives and White
husbands when both are in endogamous unions. If the actual divorce rate for marriages between
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 10
Black wives and White husbands exceeds this expected divorce rate, we have evidence that
crossing racial boundaries decreases marital stability.
Our language in the previous paragraphs may imply that we view the overall divorce rate
for a particular racial group as a fixed characteristic of individual group members. This is not
our intention: we fully recognize that group-level divorce propensities are an average over the
different individuals belonging to that group. Furthermore, we also recognize there is nothing
intrinsic about racial identity that results in divorce risk. Instead, racial differences in divorce
risks are due to the positions of these groups in the American social fabric. In explaining our
modeling strategy it is convenient to conceptualize a couple’s divorce risk as the product of
individual-level contributions from the husband and wife, even though our models represent the
average divorce contributions for each characteristic estimated over our entire sample. Although
our convergence model described below has additive effects, we recognize that husbands’ and
wive’s characteristics interact with each other to produce divorce risk. Whether these factors
interact with each other differently in endogamous and interracial marriages will reveal the
presence or absence of an interracial marriage effect.
Black/White and Latino/White Intermarriage
This paper focuses on Black/White and Latino/White intermarriage. For economy of
expression we refer to Latinos as a “racial” group and Latino/White marriages as “interracial”
even though Latinos are generally considered an ethnic group. Over the twentieth century,
Black/White intermarriages have grown over thirty-fold, from less than 0.05 percent of
marriages to men aged 20-30 in 1900 to 1.8 percent of marriages of men aged 20-30 in 2000
(calculations from Gullickson, 2006: 295). The twentieth century has also been marked by
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 11
convergence in the education and earnings of Blacks and Whites (Jaynes & Williams, 1989).
Nevertheless, deep divisions remain, as shown by the persistence of residential segregation
(Logan et al., 2004; Massey & Denton, 1992), labor market discrimination (Pager, 2003),
discrimination in public places (Feagin, 1991), and wealth differentials (Oliver & Shapiro,
1995). Despite the growth in Black/White unions, Blacks are still the least frequent
intermarriage partners for Whites (Qian & Lichter, 2007). These findings suggest that race
continues to be highly salient when comparing Blacks and Whites. By determining whether
Black/White couples have higher divorce rates, we will contribute new evidence about the state
of the Black/White divide.
Although data are more limited than for Black/White intermarriage, national statistics for
Latinos became available late in the twentieth century. Latino/White intermarriage, more
common than Black/White unions, has also increased in recent decades (Qian, 1997; Qian &
Lichter, 2007). The percentage of young Mexican American women who were intermarried
grew from 23 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 1980 to 34 percent in 1990 (Rosenfeld, 2002).
The relatively high–and increasing–intermarriage rates for Latinos suggests a higher
degree of acceptance for Latinos compared to Blacks. Thus, the effect of intermarriage on
divorce may be weaker for Latino/White couples than for Black/White unions. Even though
Latino/White intermarriage has become more common, we still expect to observe elevated
divorce rates. Substantial gaps between Whites and Latinos exist in high school and college
completion, wages, household income, and poverty (Saenz, 2005).
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 12
Data and Method
We use data from the 1995 and 2002 waves of the National Survey of Family Growth
(Groves et al. 2005; Kelly et al., 1997) to investigate divorce differentials between endogamous
and intermarried couples. The NSFG has been conducted periodically since 1973 by the
National Center for Health Statistics to study family life, fertility, and health. The 1995 survey
included only women. For 2002 we only use the female file because female marital histories are
far more reliable than men’s (Bumpass, Martin, & Sweet, 1991; Mitchell, 2010). The 1995
survey is representative of the civilian, non-institutionalized population of women aged 15-44
and had a response rate of 79 percent (Potter et al., 1998). The 2002 female NSFG is
representative of the household population of women aged 15-44 and also had a response rate of
79 percent (Lepkowski et al. 2006). Earlier and more recent NSFG waves lack sufficient
information on husband’s race. We pool the two data sets to obtain more precise estimates given
the larger number of intermarriages in the combined sample. Estimates using the 1995 and 2002
data separately yield similar results.
We construct marriage duration data from retrospective histories on marriages with
durations of at least one month. We limit our sample to first marriages for both partners because
remarriages are substantively different (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1994) and have higher divorce
rates (Goldstein, 1999). Unions ending in the death of a spouse or intact at the time of the
interview are considered censored. Couples who have divorced, separated, or annulled their
marriages are treated as divorced. To measure marriage duration for divorced couples we use
the NSFG recode that records the months between marriage and separation or divorce,
whichever occurred first.
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 13
We classify husbands and wives as non-Latino White, non-Latino Black, and Latino
using the NSFG recode for wives and the group identified as the best race for husbands with
more than one racial identity. For ease of notation we henceforth omit the modifier non-Latino.
We limit our sample to Black/White and Latino/White intermarriages as there were few
Black/Latino intermarriages and Asians in the NSFG.
Our analysis controls for a number of factors associated with both race and divorce
(Bumpass, Martin, & Sweet, 1991; Teachman, 2002): marriage cohort (in century months/1000),
wife’s education (less than high school degree, high school degree, some college without
bachelor’s degree, bachelor’s degree or more), wife’s age at marriage, whether the wife was
raised in an intact family, religion (wife raised with any religion or not), having a premarital
birth, premarital cohabitation, whether the marriage is a remarriage or first marriage for the
husband, and survey year (NSFG 1995 or 2002). Ideally we would also be able to control for
income and employment in our regression models, but full income and employment histories are
not available in the NSFG. We view education in part as a proxy for the effect of these labor
market factors. We use the NSFG sample weights in our analyses and delete listwise
observations with missing values (see Allison, 2001 for the advantages of this technique).
We estimate divorce risk using a sickle model, a parametric event history model well
suited to studying divorce (Blossfeld & Rohwer, 1995; Diekmann & Mitter, 1984). The sickle
model captures the nonmonotonic risk of divorce, which increases during the first few years of
marriage and then slowly declines. This hazard function also has the attractive feature of
producing a defective distribution of event times, thereby accounting for the fact that some
couples will never dissolve their marriages. The sickle model takes the form
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 14
log ( ) log log /
rt a t t b
where r(t) is the divorce rate at duration t, and a and b include parameters to be estimated. The b
term is the shape parameter: . Estimated values for indicate the point in the
risk function where divorce rate is highest. Covariates are included with the a term, where
; ; are the hazard
=+ + +
ratios describing the effects of the x variables. Cox regression with robust standard errors yields
results similar to our sickle model.
To estimate the effect of intermarriage we include main effects of husband’s race and
wife’s race in the model along with interactions between husband’s race and wife’s race:
a husb husb wife wife
husb wife husb wife
black latino black latina
black black latino latina
where Whites are the omitted category for race (regressors for variables besides race are not
shown in the above equation). The
2 parameters capture how the divorce contributions
for Black and Latino husbands respectively differ from those for White men. The
parameters capture how the divorce contributions for Black and Latina wives respectively differ
from those for White wives.
6 interaction coefficients are the key terms for our hypotheses. They
respectively distinguish Black/Black unions from Black/White intermarriages and Latino/Latina
marriages from Latino/White intermarriages. In other words, these interaction terms capture
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 15
divorce risk differences when Blacks and Latinos are endogamously married, compared to when
they are intermarried. For instance, these interaction terms determine whether a Latino
husband’s contribution to divorce risk is contingent on the race of his spouse. Negative
coefficients for these interaction terms indicate that endogamous Black or Latino marriages have
lower divorce risks than would result from an additive model. Thus, negative coefficients would
imply that endogamous Black or Latino couples have lower divorce risks than intermarried
couples; for instance, Latino husbands make smaller divorce risk contributions when they are
married to Latina wives. This is our expected finding, as it would indicate that endogamous
marriages are more stable (and intermarriage raises divorce risk). Conversely, an interaction that
is not statistically significant would be consistent with the additive model, corresponding to the
convergence perspective, and would suggest that husbands’ and wives’ contributions to their
unions’ divorce risks are the same whether they are intermarried or not.
It is not possible to determine whether an intermarriage effect is attributable to different
gender-race pairings; for example, we cannot know whether Latino husband/White wife or
White husband/Latina wife unions have higher divorce rates. Distinct effects for these two types
of intermarriages are not identified in our model. If Latino/Latina divorce risks differ from the
risk expected by combining the behavior of Latino men and women in intermarriages, it is
impossible to know if this is due to differences in Latino men’s or women’s behavior. This is
the trade-off of statistical models that distinguish between compositional and interactive effects
of intermarriage on divorce rates.
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 16
Table 1 contains descriptive statistics for our sample of 8,597 first marriages. Thirty-
eight marriages (unweighted) are between a White man and a Black woman. Sixty-nine pair a
Black man with a White woman. The sample includes 286 marriages between White men and
Latinas, and 224 marriages between Latino men and White women. Most of the marriages in
the sample took place in the 1980s and 1990s and occurred when the woman was in her late
teens or early 20s. The women in the sample typically possess a high school diploma or have
completed some college. About two-thirds are from intact families and 94 percent were raised
with religion. Fourteen percent of women experienced a premarital birth and 37 percent
cohabited with their partners.
Table 1 Here
The bottom of Table 1 lists the value of the survivor function for marriages by husband’s
race and wife’s race at a duration of 10 years. Sixty-eight percent of White/White couples are
still married, but only 58 percent of White husband/Black wife, 55 percent of Black
husband/White wife, and 49 percent of Black/Black marriages are intact. Survival probabilities
for Black/White intermarriages are closer to those for endogamous Black marriages but it is
unclear whether these results support the convergence hypothesis, or suggest that Black/White
intermarriages have a higher than expected divorce rate just because they are intermarriages.
Our sickle model results, presented below, allow us to test the convergence hypothesis while
simultaneously controlling for confounding factors.
Sixty-three percent of White husband/Latina wife marriages, 56 percent of Latino
husband/White wife marriages, and 69 percent of Latino/Latina marriages are still intact after 10
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 17
years of marriage. The survival probabilities for the two types of Latino/White intermarriages
both fall below the probabilities for endogamous White and Latino marriages. This suggests that
Latino/White marriages may indeed experience higher dissolution rates than would be expected
if the effects of race were additive.
Sickle Models of Divorce
Table 2 presents results for our sickle models of divorce. Model 1 includes only wife’s
race and produces results consistent with our descriptive statistics. Black women’s marriages
have a divorce hazard that is 65 percent higher than White women’s marriages (exp[0.498] =
1.65, p < .001). Latina women’s marriages have a divorce hazard that is 6 percent lower than
White women’s marriages (exp[-0.065] = 0.94), although this difference is not statistically
Table 2 Here
These effects represent a weighted average of the divorce propensities by wife’s race for
endogamous and interracial marriages. The divorce rate for the omitted category of White
women is a composite of White women’s marriages with White, Black, and Latino men. The
higher hazard for Black women represents an average of the divorce rates for Black/Black and
Black wife/White husband marriages that is heavily weighted toward Black/Black marriages,
given that they greatly outnumber Black wife/White husband marriages. For Latina wives, their
lower estimated hazard represents an average of the divorce rates for Latino/Latina and Latina
wife/White husband marriages that is also weighted toward endogamous marriages, because they
outnumber Latina/White intermarriages.
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 18
Model 2 adds effects for husband’s race to Model 1, thereby conceptualizing divorce risk
as an additive product of husbands’ and wives’ characteristics. Only the zero order effects of
race are included, so the divorce risk contributions of each spouse are not contingent on the other
spouse’s race. Thus, the estimated effects for wife’s and husband’s race represent the average
contribution over endogamous and interracial marriages.
In Model 2 the individual effects for Black husbands and Black wives are not statistically
significant, although both are positive. The positive coefficients suggest that both Black men
and Black women bring higher divorce propensities to their marriages than do White men and
women, respectively. The lack of statistical significance does not mean that there are no
Black/White differences in divorce propensities. On the contrary: a likelihood ratio test of the
null hypothesis that the effects for Black husbands and wives are simultaneously zero is soundly
2 = 73.9, df = 2, p < 0.001). Blacks’ marriages do in fact have higher
divorce rates than White marriages. The variables for Black husbands and Black wives are
highly correlated (r = .95) because Black/White intermarriage is rare. The high correlation
raises the standard errors for the estimated effects beyond the level that would yield statistical
significance at the conventional 0.05 level.
The coefficients for Latina wives and Latino husbands in Model 2 are both statistically
significant, but the effect for wives is negative whereas the effect for husbands is positive. The
negative effect for Latina wives is consistent with the established finding that Latina women’s
marriages have lower divorce rates than White women’s marriages (Bramlett and Mosher,
2002). The effect for Latino husbands may reflect their inferior socioeconomic status relative to
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 19
We add interaction terms in Model 3 for Black/Black marriages and Latino/Latina
marriages, allowing us to determine whether intermarriage in and of itself affects divorce rate.
Black husbands’ and wives’ respective contributions to divorce risk are positive and remain
greater than those of White husbands and wives, but are still not statistically significant. Our
hypothesis is that the estimated coefficient for the Black/Black interaction term will be negative
because this would suggest that these endogamous marriages have a greater ability to avoid
divorce compared to Black/White intermarriages. The estimated coefficient is negative as
expected, but it is not statistically significant. Thus, Black husbands’ and wives’ divorce risk
contributions are the same whether they are in mixed or endogamous marriages. We have no
evidence that Black/White couples’ divorce risks are greater than would be suggested by a
model that includes only additive measures of husbands’ and wives’ characteristics. In other
words, Black/White marriages face higher divorce rates because Blacks have higher divorce
rates, not because they are in interracial marriages.
Latino husbands’ contribution to marital instability continues to be significantly greater
than that of White husbands. However, Latinas’ statistically significant negative effect on
marital stability (Model 2) has become positive and non-significant in Model 3. After allowing
for the possibility of an interaction between husband’s and wife’s race, intermarried Latina
wives make the same contribution to divorce risk as do White wives. In addition, the negative
and statistically significant coefficient for the Latino/Latina interaction term in Model 3 shows
that Latino/Latina marriages have lower divorce rates than expected under an additive model.
When Latinos and Latinas are endogamously married, their contribution to their marriages’
divorce risk is 62 percent of their contribution when they are married to Whites (exp[-0.479] =
0.62). Thus, when Latinos are wed to Whites their divorce risk contribution is greater than when
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 20
they are endogamously married. This is evidence that intermarriage raises the risk of divorce for
Latino/White marriages, contrary to the convergence hypothesis.
Model 4 adds control variables to Model 3. Consistent with past research, age at first
marriage, education, and being raised in an intact family are negatively related to divorce risk;
wife’s religion has no effect. Couples experiencing a premarital birth or premarital cohabitation
are more likely to divorce.
The pattern of race effects found in Model 3 persists in Model 4. Black husbands’ and
Black wives’ divorce risk contributions remain respectively greater than White husbands’ and
White wives’ contributions but are not statistically significant. The interaction term for
Black/Black marriages remains negative but continues to be non-significant, suggesting that
crossing racial boundaries does not affect Black/White marriages. Latina wives still make a
small, positive, but not statistically significant contribution to divorce rates. Latino husbands
make a positive divorce rate contribution that is statistically significant. The interaction effect
for Latino/Latina marriages remains negative, suggesting that Latino’s divorce rate contributions
in endogamous marriages are only 58 percent of their contributions in interracial marriages
(exp[-0.553] = 0.58).
In Table 3 we tabulate the survivor function at selected durations for a respondent with a
typical set of covariate values: married in mid-1986 at age 22, the wife with some college, from
an intact family, raised with a religion, no premarital cohabitation or premarital birth, and from
the 1995 NSFG. These survival probabilities, calculated from Model 4 in Table 2, show racial
disparities in divorce propensities while holding constant other differences between respondents.
Table 3 Here
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 21
The two types of Black/White intermarriages have fifteen-year survival probabilities
(both 59 percent) that essentially fall between those for White/White (66 percent) and
Black/Black (56 percent) marriages. This is consistent with the notion of convergence, which
suggests that divorce rates for intermarried couples will be an average of the divorce rates for
endogamous couples from the two constituent groups. The absence of an effect of crossing
racial boundaries for Black/White marriages is clear. On the other hand, Latino/White marriages
have fifteen-year survival probabilities (64 percent and 58 percent) falling squarely below those
for both White/White (66 percent) and Latino/Latina marriages (72 percent). The survival
probabilities for these intermarried couples are clearly not an average of the survival
probabilities for endogamous marriages of the two constituent groups. Instead, the probabilities
of survival are lower than those for the two types of endogamous marriages. This suggests that
crossing the racial boundary makes divorce more likely in Latino/White marriages.
This research has sought to determine whether interracial marriages are less stable than
same-race marriages. To this end, we estimated a survival model using recent data on
Black/White and Latino/White intermarriages in the United States. Recent work on racial
intermarriage and divorce has not sufficiently appreciated the analytic strategy of older research
on the effects of religious, age, and educational intermarriage on marital dissolution. Building
on the insights of these older studies we develop a model of divorce that controls for first-order
racial differences in divorce propensities to determine whether crossing racial boundaries raises
marital dissolution rates. We find that crossing the Latino/White boundary in marriage does
elevate divorce rates but crossing the Black/White divide does not. Marriages between Whites
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 22
and African-Americans dissolve at higher rates than endogamous White marriages because the
intermarriages include Black spouses, not because they are intermarriages. Thus the
convergence hypothesis is borne out for Black/White marriages but not Latino/White unions.
These results are contrary to our expectation that the intermarriage effect would be
stronger for Black/White than for Latino/White marriages because of the deeper social
boundaries between Blacks and Whites. One potential explanation is that our sample of
Black/White marriages was too small for the estimated effects to attain statistical significance.
However, our sample of 8,597 marriages did include 107 intermarriages between Blacks and
Whites, a healthy number. If our sample size is indeed insufficient to detect an intermarriage
effect, perhaps any existing effect is in fact relatively small. Since Black/White intermarriage is
relatively uncommon, a definitive answer requires a larger sample with more Black/White
How do our findings compare to those of Bratter and King (2008) and Zhang and Van
Hook (2009), two recent studies of racial intermarriage and divorce? One major difference is
that our results are less ambiguous because they distinguish composition effects from unique
intermarriage effects. These two studies make comparisons which do not necessarily lead to
Bratter and King (2008) use the 2002 NSFG, half of the data we use. They employ a
slightly different sample and a different statistical model, but the key distinction between their
study and ours is that they directly compared intermarried couples to White/White couples to
determine if intermarriage increases divorce rates. How do our conclusions compare to theirs?
They found that marriages between Latino husbands and White wives and between Latina wives
and White husbands had the same divorce rates as White/White couples and that Latina/Latino
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 23
marriages had lower divorce rates than White/White couples. Bratter and King conclude that
Latino/White intermarriages do not have elevated divorce rates, whereas we find the opposite to
be true. Under our framework their results can be explained by the increased contributions
Latina wives and Latino husbands make to divorce risk when they are intermarried, compared to
when they are endogamously married. In other words, intermarriage itself uniquely elevates
divorce risks; the individual contributions of the spouses do not. Bratter and King’s results here
are therefore consistent with our conclusion.
Bratter and King (2008) also find that White/White and Black/Black marriages have the
same divorce rates. However, in their study, White wife/Black husband marriages have higher
divorce rates and Black wife/White husband marriages have lower divorce rates than
White/White marriages. They conclude that intermarriage increases divorce only for White
wife/Black husband marriages; we conclude that crossing a racial boundary in Black/White
intermarriages had no effect on divorce risks. Their comparison does not uniquely identify the
effect of intermarriage on marital dissolution. It is not possible to identify an intermarriage
effect for one sex pairing (Black husbands/White wives) and not the other (White
husbands/Black wives). The interaction term in our models simultaneously captures (1) the
difference between Black husbands’ contribution to divorce risk when intermarried compared to
when they are endogamously married and (2) the difference between Black wives’ contributions
when intermarried versus when they are endogamously married.
Zhang and Van Hook (2009) study 23,139 couples from the Survey of Income and
Program Participation (SIPP). Although their sample is larger than ours, couples in their data
were observed for at most a 3-4 year period, whereas our data are based on longer marital
histories. The greatest difference between their study and ours is how the effect of intermarriage
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 24
is parameterized Their overall conclusion is that intermarriage does not increase divorce. They
find that Black/White couples have a divorce rate less than or equal to that for Black/Black
couples but greater than that for White/White couples. In addition, divorce rates for
Latino/White couples are not significantly greater than for Latina/Latino or White/White
couples. Based on these comparisons, Zhang and Van Hook conclude that intermarriage
between Whites and Latinos does not increase divorce rates. It is not possible to say what their
results would be with our analytic strategy and their data.
What do our results say about intermarriage as an indicator of the strength of group
boundaries? For Latinos, the relatively high intermarriage rates with Whites may not represent a
correspondingly high level of social integration. Latino/White couples still face significant
obstacles, judging by the fact that their marriages dissolve at higher rates than expected under
the convergence perspective. On the other hand, our results suggest that the low rate of
Black/White intermarriage may provide an accurate assessment of the social boundaries between
Blacks and Whites. Perhaps the only Black/White couples to wed are those who are willing and
able to overcome the severe obstacles posed by their intermarriage. Black/White intermarriages
are therefore the exception that prove the rule about intermarriage and social boundaries. Our
findings about Latinos demonstrate that we might not have transcended racial and ethnic
boundaries to the extent that relatively high rates of intermarriage might suggest.
There is a long history of homogamy research in the social sciences (Kalmijn, 1998).
Homogamy on social attributes is generally associated with marital stability. Although
White/Black intermarriage does not in itself increase the risk of divorce, it may be that only
White/Black couples who are homogamous in other ways are actually marrying in the first place.
It may also be the case that unmeasured differences between White/Latino couples are producing
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 25
the intermarriage effect documented in this paper. It has been shown, for instance, that first-
generation Mexican-Americans enjoy greater marital stability than subsequent generations
(Bean, Berg, & Van Hook, 1996). Furthermore, a sizeable number of Latinos, up to 30%, are
not Catholic (Perl, Greely, & Gray, 2006). Perhaps heterogamy based on religion or nativity
may be contributing to Latino divorce rates. In addition, we were unable to disaggregate our
Latino category into Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other groups because of data
limitations. The disparate immigration histories of these groups may further complicate divorce
patterns. These topics await future research.
In future explorations of homogamy of all kinds we encourage social scientists to take
our primary methodological contention into consideration: the apparently forgotten distinction
between additive effects of spouse characteristics and interactive effects that are necessary for
identifying the true effect of intermarriage.
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 26
Table 1: Percentage distribution of marriages
Race of husband and wife
White husband/White wife 73
White husband/Black wife 0.3
White husband/Latina wife 2
Black husband/White wife 1
Black husband/Black wife 9
Latino husband/White wife 3
Latino husband/Latina wife 11
Wife’s age at marriage
less than high school 12
high school diploma 36
some college 28
bachelor’s degree or more 24
Wife from intact family 68
Wife raised with any religion 94
Premarital birth 14
Premarital cohabitation 37
Survey: NSFG 2002 49
Marriage intact at 10 years
White husband/White wife 68
White husband/Black wife 58
White husband/Latina wife 63
Black husband/White wife 55
Black husband/Black wife 49
Latino husband/White wife 56
Latino husband/Latina wife 69
Source: 1995 and 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, N = 8,957. Percentages are weighted.
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 27
Table 2: Coefficients for Sickle Models of Divorce
Variable Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Wife’s race (omitted category is White)
Husband’s race (omitted category is White)
Husband’s race*Wife’s race
Marriage cohort (century months/1000) 0.330
Wife’s age at marriage -0.104***
Wife’s education (omitted category is less than high school)
high school diploma 0.122*
some college 0.102
bachelor’s degree or more -0.205*
Wife from intact family -0.316***
Wife raised with any religion -0.107
Premarital birth 0.361***
Premarital cohabitation 0.239***
NSFG 2002 (vs. 1995) 0.086
*p < 0.05 **p < 0.01 ***p < 0.001(2-tailed tests)
Source: 1995 and 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, N = 8,597
Statistics presented for each independent variable are the metric coefficient, standard error, and hazard ratio exp(
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 28
Table 3: Estimated Survivor Function by Husband’s Race and Wife’s Race
Percentage of marriages intact by
5 years 10 years 15 years
White husband/White wife 85 72 66
White husband/Black wife 82 66 59
White husband/Latina wife 84 71 64
Black husband/White wife 82 66 59
Black husband/Black wife 80 63 56
Latino husband/White wife 81 65 58
Latino husband/Latina wife 88 77 72
Racial Intermarriage and Divorce 29
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