In their special election earlier this month, California voters rejected a proposal that supporters said would create a "color-blind society", barring the state from collecting racial and ethnic data. But in some ways, California - and the rest of the country - is becoming color-blind. There are more interracial marriages in the United States than ever before. While such couples comprise only about two percent of the nation's married population, some stereotypes regarding the issue are beginning to break down, even in the "heart of Dixie," the southern states, where historically, the line between black and white was wide. Downtown Tuscaloosa is just a few minutes drive from the University of Alabama. The area's numerous restaurants and bars serve as gathering places for many of the 20,000 students who attend school here, as well as for office workers, lawyers and government officials. As in any U.S. city that's home to a major state university, it's common to see people of various ethic and cultural backgrounds in Tuscaloosa. It's also becoming more common to see these people dating.
"Mostly everywhere you look now there's always, you know, there's interracial couples," said Tamika Hewitt, a senior office associate at the University's College of Communication and Information Sciences. "No matter if it's black or white, or Chinese or Italian.
"And I think being in Tuscaloosa, at the University, when you see everybody, then it's just like, you know, a normal day when you see someone of a different race," she added.
Interracial dating is a personal matter for Ms. Hewitt. She and her husband, Larry Payne, were married August 1, after dating for four years. She is black; he is white. The two met at a Little League baseball game, and her brother suggested Mr. Payne ask her out. Their families and friends have been very supportive of the relationship, and Ms. Hewitt said neither she nor her husband gives much thought to their racial differences. But she said when they're in public, they do get the occasional second look. "Sometimes we could see somebody staring, but we would do something funny just to make them, you know, stare a little bit harder, like hold hands or do something stupid. It didn't bother me at all," she said. Interracial dating and marriage is still a somewhat taboo subject in the United States. While some Americans have no problem with it, others stand firmly against it - some for religious reasons, some out of fear, others because they don't know any different. University of Alabama law professor Bryan Fair says the idea of friendships, and more, across racial lines often conflicts with established family traditions that date back centuries. "The custom of teaching children a certain racial etiquette," said Professor Fair. "You stay within your own racial group. That, I think, has been taught to generations of Americans throughout the country." He says such attitudes are prevalent worldwide.
It's an issue of personal relevance for Professor Fair, as well. He is black, and his wife Tana has a mixed ethnic heritage: Spanish, Indian, Canadian, Austrian and Jewish. He says they haven't encountered overt discrimination because of their relationship, but he says that hasn't been a major concern of theirs, either. "Our goal is to be the best partners we can be, not to dwell on race labels, or what other people think is appropriate or inappropriate, but to try to be good partners and good parents," he said. Parenting is challenging enough, but when a child is the product of a mixed-race marriage, there can be special concerns.
"Those children can experience confusion regarding their racial identity," said Nick Stinnett, a Human Development and Family Studies professor at the University of Alabama. He said in some cases, children of mixed heritage face racism from their peers and rejection from both sides of their family.
But those are worst-case scenarios. Professor Stinnett says bi-racial kids have advantages, as well. They have an understanding of both races," he said. "They have maybe a greater cultural awareness and appreciation for other cultures, maybe more than a lot of other children do. So there are a lot of benefits to this, too." The perception that Alabama and the American South are openly hostile to interracial couples is still widely held. Brian Fair says it was true at one time that mixed race couples risked legal consequences or even physical attack for their relationships. And although federal laws invalidated it decades ago, Alabama removed a ban on interracial marriage from its constitution just three years ago.
But Tamika Hewitt said attitudes in the state started changing before that. "Alabama has the name for being the racist capital, I guess, of the South. I think it is more stereotype [than reality]," she said. "I think the people now have grown - you know, they've seen it so much it doesn't really affect them anymore." The Alabama Center for Health Statistics reports that nearly 1,000 marriages in 2001 involved black and white couples, and more than 1,040 the year before. Estimates from nationwide population surveys suggest there are more than 200,000 black-white marriages in the United States today.