This is the time of year we set aside time to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reflect upon his influence. Classrooms around the country recently replayed some of his speeches, and students together read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It is necessary that they do so, and no Americans can count themselves as truly educated who have not read much of his most popular arguments.
King’s words are part of the canon of American political writing and belong to a long tradition of Enlightenment thought. His best belongs in the same intellectual anthology as that of Jefferson, Lincoln and Thomas Paine. The essence of the American aspirations toward freedom can be understood by cobbling together just a few paragraphs from Paine’s “Rights of Man,” Jefferson’s second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, along with King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Few readers likely experience the same misty-eyed affection for these words as do I. But, they cannot help but move even the most cynical observer of the American experience. Even an hour spent reading these words might allow us to better appreciate one another as we go about building a more perfect union.
Recent years have been difficult on the perception of growing racial comity and justice that nearly all Americans hoped would mark the passage of time. Sadly, it is difficult to write about race, in part because so many minefields have been set by people of bad faith. Moreover, there are too many gatekeepers to debate, when it is a subject for all of us. Happily, this column is not about race. It is about the decisions of individual Americans as they construct the building blocks of our Republic and our economy.
A vibrant and growing economy is a tender thing, which can be readily disrupted by a lack of trust and goodwill. Trade, employment, capital investment and the purchase of goods through a lengthy supply chain all rely upon extensive trust. As I have noted before, the opposite of war is not peace, it is trade. Peace demands nothing of us but the temporary suppression of violence. Trade between people demands trust, cooperation and interdependence. These are more difficult, but enduring, demands upon our humanity.
History provides no example of long-term economic success built upon any other social and political system than that which places the individual first. Thus, political philosophies that elevate race, gender, creed or other identity above the individual are ultimately incompatible with a successful economy. For every direction, our political discourse is increasingly filled with voices that value group identity over the individual. Ultimately, these ideas will fail here, not least because of the ongoing decisions of ordinary Americans about the ways in which they organize their lives.
A look at demographic data suggests the American people are moving along with addressing racial issues at our own quick pace. Stark inequality still exists in many places, along with abundant issues to think and act upon. But, the trend is almost universally positive, toward more acceptance and opportunity. As one small example, today Black women attend college at higher rates than white men. Few listening to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 would’ve imagined that. Of course, this might usher in different equity issues, particularly around gender, but I’ll save that for another column.
The data that most astounds me is the explosive growth in mixed-race marriages and children. For fairly obvious reasons, this is the most telling component of our nation’s integration story. In 1967, the year before Martin Luther King was assassinated, racial intermarriage was illegal in some states. That year, Loving vs. Virginia ended miscegenation laws. Demographers have estimated that in 1967, some 3% of new marriages were of mixed race.
By 2015, more than one in six newlyweds and one in 10 of all marriages were of mixed race. This trend is accelerating and is substantially more pronounced among better-educated adults. Some of this increase is due to individuals identifying themselves as multiracial. Still, it represents a significant shift in behavior of families and communities.
This phenomenon is not linked solely to race. Interfaith marriage rose from one in five in the 1960s to one in three today. Of course, changing religion for a spouse is not uncommon, but even a half century ago some interfaith marriages were deeply frowned upon. It should not be surprising that generations of white Americans who fled religious persecution would hold tight some prejudices. In a similar vein, same-sex marriage is relatively new, comprising one in every 120 or so marriages.
I focus on marriage because it is more effective than surveys in revealing the general feelings toward race and faith. I am sympathetic to many who argue that intermarriage changes cultures and congregations, but the ability to marry who you wish is a human right. In that light, it is time to build new cultures and congregations. That is one thing we Americans do better than anyone else. We should also view these changes as the prism of our own family experiences.
Three generations ago, marriage between an American of Scots-Irish descent, such as myself, and an Irish Catholic would’ve been strongly opposed by both families. I can point to examples of deeply unfulfilling lives as a consequence. The probability that either would marry an African American would likewise be small. Neither instance would be remarkable today.
When I was born in Maryland, racially mixed marriages were illegal, though not often enforced. Today it is so common that the raw chance that one of my three children will marry someone of another race is roughly 50%, but the real probability is higher. The rate of intermarriage is growing quickly, and young adults who’ve graduated from college are more likely to marry someone of a different race. Moreover, all three of my kids are pursuing military careers, and so are entering the most desegregated institutions in the nation. Veterans are more likely than non-veterans to be married to someone of another race.
Not surprisingly, these data imply that exposure to diverse people is driving these changes. So, whatever amplification of racial discord we might perceive today, where racial relations arguably matter most of all — within the realm of family — progress is accelerating. That doesn’t mean there is not more work to be done elsewhere. Still, I can think of few better testaments to the Enlightenment-inspired vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. than this. When deciding who to marry, Americans increasingly “… live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”