Societies, cultures, and populations tend to change and evolve slowly, sometimes too slowly for us to even notice. But sometimes, social changes shift fast enough to make curious scientists and economists to wonder why. Turns out, the recent increase in interracial marriages — a pretty big deal on the broad spectrum of social change — might stem from an unlikely source.
Dating used to involve going out into the world and interacting with people.
Our dating pool was influenced primarily by location, proximity, and social connections. Couples met at school, work, church, and through friends. This generally limited the diversity of potential partners. It makes sense, if you think about it: as neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and social networks tended to be racially homogeneous, people ended up dating and marrying within their own race.
The homogeneous pool of potential partners mirrored the social norms of the day.
Interracial dating was once uncommon, and extremely unlikely to be accepted. In the 1950s and 1960s, a slow shift started to take place. More interracial couples began to appear in metropolitan areas, among the well-traveled and well-educated, and among the rich and famous.
Long-standing social morays were questioned and challenged as society integrated, exposing us to different types of people and lifestyles — and more interracial families.
Pop culture of the time reflects this. I Love Lucy debuted in 1951. Initially, CBS wanted Lucy only, thinking the American public would never accept her Cuban husband, Ricky. Ultimately the couple was widely loved despite their interracial marriage.
The film version of West Side Story was released in 1961. The musical centers on the forbidden love between Maria and Tony, a Puerto Rican girl and a white boy in New York. Their story ends in tragedy, leaving the audience to ask themselves if such unfounded hate and separation is worth it.
It was more than proximity and social norms that impeded interracial relationships.
It wasn’t until 1967, in the case of Loving v. Virginia when the U.S. Supreme Court reached the unanimous and groundbreaking decision which invalidated any laws prohibiting interracial marriage. As soon as it was legal to marry a person of a different race, interracial marriage rates grew.
For the most part, proximity and social connections were still the biggest factors in meeting potential partners, which meant that people still mostly dated and married within the same race.
With the advent of online dating, suddenly people were no longer limited by proximity or other social connections.
Without needing to rely on work, school, or friends, people were able to meet complete strangers from wholly different backgrounds. A new study from University of Vienna economists Josue Ortega and Philipp Hergovich suggests that this has led to a steep increase in interracial relationships. They concluded that “when a society benefits from previously absent ties, social integration occurs rapidly.”
Stephanie Afful is a professor of race relations at Lindenwood University in Missouri. She explains her take on the new study:
“If we look back 50 years, the biggest predictor of attraction and who we might date or start a relationship with was proximity, so physical distance. You were more likely to date someone who worked with you, went to the same school with you, lived in the same neighborhood as you. But now with social media and these dating apps, we have a much more diversified heterogeneous dating pool. We are likely to meet people who are different from us who live in a different area. And we would have not had that opportunity, had we not met online so I think it is, in essence, diversifying our dating pool.”
Is the jump in interracial relationships truly a result of new dating technology? Or have interracial couples become more widely accepted? Or maybe it’s just that we live more integrated lives now?