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Interracial Families Changing Americans' Attitudes Toward Race


When Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was born to a white mother and a black father in 1961, marriage between blacks and whites was illegal in some parts of the United States. That's no longer the case, but as VOA's Susan Logue reports, public attitudes toward interracial families are still changing.

Charles Spearman, who is black, has been married to Nancy Burnett, who is white, for nine years. "When we are outside in the community, we know other people perceive us as a black and white couple," Spearman says. "In the house, we're just a couple and we're thinking of the challenges and opportunities any couple would have."

In the Virginia suburb where they live, their marriage would have been illegal prior to 1967. That's when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting interracial marriage violate the civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Richard and Mildred Loving, who were also residents of Virginia, had led that legal battle. "That was a lot of courage by that couple," Spearman says. "It was a testament to love, courage and the legal profession to pave the way for the changes that have taken place in (the past) 40 years."

Spearman and Burnett, who were both previously married, say if they had met earlier, they would have married then. But Burnett, who has a 21-year-old daughter from her first marriage, which was to a white man, says it might have been more challenging.

"I can't predict how my family at that time - whether they would have been able to accept that difference, that they now accept," she says. Burnett, who grew up in a small town in East Tennessee, says her family belonged to a country club where "you could not be a member if you were of color. All of the people who served and worked in the club were black and all of the people who were members were white."

Despite a change in laws, segregation continues

Of course, that was 40 years ago and times have changed. Spearman says he feels quite welcome when the couple goes to Tennessee to visit with Burnett's family. But both say they don't see many blacks and whites mingling socially, even in suburban Washington,D.C.

"We will go to different places of worship and there is no racial mixture," Burnett says. "We live in a neighborhood that has one other family of color."

"It is quite visible that there is quite a bit of segregation," Spearman notes, "not so much intentionally now, but it occurs."

Rachel Lerman, 40, knows what it is like to be the only person of color in her neighborhood. The daughter of a Nigerian father and a white American mother, Lerman was adopted and raised by a white Jewish couple in suburban Boston.

Lerman, who points out that she was born the same year the Lovings won there case in the U.S. Supreme Court, grew up in the midst of busing. "Black students were bused into the town where I grew up that was 99 percent white."

Although she was biracial, she chose to represent herself as black. "I look like a black person, and to a lot of people I was the only black person they knew, so for me I always felt black. Being biracial was something a lot of people did not get."

Celebrities help change attitudes

That is changing. Even before Americans became familiar with Barack Obama, Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry and golf superstar Tiger Woods, who are both multie-racial, were changing Americans' attitudes toward race.

"This concept of black and white is a very artificial construct in the United States," says Alex Diaz-Asper, Lerman's husband. "It never was just a black and white culture."

Diaz-Asper, whose family emigrated from Cuba to the United States, is fair-skinned.

"Americans are starting to recognize that we are not just two races, we are multiple races in this country," he says. "We always have been."

Raising the next generation of multi-cultural Americans

Diaz-Asper and Lerman have twin three-year-old boys, whom they are raising with a strong emphasis on Latino culture and language. Alejandro has curly dark hair, brown eyes and brown skin. Miguel has straight light-brown hair, blue eyes, and pale skin.

"Their unifying identity is being Latin," Lerman says. "We do get reactions because of how they look, obviously being such a contrast. Usually it is people who are white who will say 'How did that happen? You've got one for Mom and one for Dad.'"

Such comments are rare in the multi-cultural Washington neighborhood where the family lives. Lerman believes both boys will have a more positive experience growing up than she did. "I'm hopeful they will feel more connected to American society in general than I did. And that they will feel less that they need to be an either-or."

In 2000, the U.S. Census bureau took one step in that direction. For the first time, Americans filling out the Census survey forms were allowed to check more than one box to define their race. More than six and a half million Americans did. And in the eight years since then, 25 percent more Americans have identified themselves as belonging to two or more races.