Some moons ago, my first official "date" was with a black boy. (I am white, by the way.) Technically he was half-black, but in the remote Maine community where I grew up, it didn't make much difference either way. There was one black family in town; they had only one child around my age, so he was the only black kid in my school. We didn't think of him as "black" or "half-black" or "mulatto," though. We thought of him as Jeff. That experience has largely defined race relations for me.
Not so, of course, for much of our nation's history and many of our nation's people.
But interesting new trends are emerging from the 2010 U.S. Census, particularly in race dynamics. One finding is that a more general population shift to the southern states now includes an increased number of African Americans who, for the past century, have lived in higher concentrations in the Northeast. Perhaps related to this trend are reports that in the Deep South, inter-racial marriages are gaining wider acceptance.
The New York Times recently reported based on Census data that of all the states, Mississippi saw the greatest increase in mixed-race marriages. The couples profiled in the story, despite minor tensions over their inter-racial status, report smooth sailing in a state once home to some of the country's most volatile racial conflicts.
We've come a long way, and that's good news.
Liberty University, where I teach, is located in Lynchburg, Virginia, not far from the former Confederate capital, and the school offers a good snapshot of that progress. Its founder, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, at the same time he was growing a church and becoming a national conservative leader in the 1960s, was also gaining notoriety as a sort of accidental segregationist. In his autobiography, he wrote candidly about his formerly racist attitudes and his later profound remorse for those views, inherited honestly, if uncritically, through his cultural context. Inasmuch as one can make amends for such things, then certainly he achieved that before his death in 2007: there has long been a thriving population of minority students at Liberty, one that reflects national percentages.
I've seen these trends being played out among my students, a number of whom are now partnered in mixed-race marriages; I contacted five of them to see if their experiences square with the reports above. As it turns out, the answer is yes—and no.
It is clear from their experiences that great progress has been made for inter-racial couples and families in the South. The women told me that public attitudes are generally "more receptive" and "positive" overall. Rachel, who is white, says the fact that her husband is black is "not an issue at all" where they live in Virginia. They both work at a small liberal arts college where diversity is a core value and attend church with a mixed-race congregation that "appreciates" having her husband as a worship leader. Jessica, whose husband is a native of Nigeria, also lives and works primarily around communities that value diversity. She says, "Our social circles are pretty tolerant and many times, racially diverse, and this may also have something to do with the positive reception we feel."
But all is not rosy. Each of these women cites the greatest hostility as coming from older black women, some of whom have vocally objected to a black man marrying a white woman. When Jessica and her husband are in social situations dominated by one race or the other, they "downplay" their connection. Chris-Robin says she and her husband "have experienced quite a bit of angst" because their marriage is inter-racial. Living in Virginia, they had enough "confrontations"—from tense stares to nasty comments meant for them and their children to hear—that they have a rule: If they are in a public place and either of them says, "Go, now!" they do just that, no questions asked.
Unlike the couples in the Times article, Chris-Robin, whose family is from Mississippi, and her husband simply won't go there. "Pamela," who also lives in Virginia, has one child with her African American husband, whom she met in high school and dated throughout college. She's not sure if the "negativity" she experienced when they were first dating has diminished or if she simply has stopped noticing it. Some things, however, are impossible not to notice. Recently, she overheard fellow residents of her apartment complex complaining to one another about people who have children with "nasty a** n*****s." The words stung, reminding her that "words can do way more damage than we can possibly imagine."
All the women mentioned the crucial role their families played in shaping the dynamics of their marriages, having more effect than perhaps anything else. Most experienced some initial resistance, even opposition, from concerned parents, only to have them won over with time. "Pamela," whose father was initially opposed to her marrying a black man, says, happily, now she thinks her father loves her husband more than her. But things did not turn out so well for "Brittany" and her husband, who are estranged after a couple years of marriage. The inability of her husband's family to accept his white wife, along with his failure to sufficiently support her, has contributed to the disintegration of the marriage, which seems beyond repair, although "Brittany" is praying for a miracle.
I am praying with "Brittany" for the healing of her marriage, as we in the body of Christ should pray for all marriages. Genesis 1:27 says that God created us as "male and female." In the next chapter, God exhorts the man and woman to hold fast in the marriage bond. When God designed marriage, he made no mention of race. Why should we?