(Conversation) – In the long-running sci-fi serial Star Trek, the mission of the crew of the starship USS Enterprise is to “boldly go where no one has gone before”. This was most often apparent in the crew’s discovery of new worlds and new beings in the course of the drama.
But the series pushed another new boundary 50 years ago when, having been subjected to “sadistic” mind control by aliens, Captain James Kirk (played by William Shatner) and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) were compelled to passionately kiss each other. With Shatner a Canadian-born actor of European descent and Nichols an American-born actress of African descent, this became one of the earliest, and by far the most watched, scripted interracial kiss on US television. While the kiss is tame by today’s standards, in 1968 it was certainly somewhere few men or women in US television had gone before.
The kiss occurred at a time when only a minuscule proportion of couples within the US married across racial or other ethnic boundaries. Estimates vary, but according to a 2017 Pew Research Centre report fewer than 3% of US marriages were interethnic in 1968 – just one year after the US Supreme Court had struck down the existing anti-miscegenation state laws against mixed relationships as unconstitutional in the Loving vs Virgina case. By contrast, in 2015 (the most recent year for which detailed statistics are available) around 10% of US marriages were interethnic, fuelled largely by newlyweds: 17% of all new US marriages were mixed marriages.
The change in the proportion of interethnic marriages in the US during the past 50 years is striking, although this still implies that around 90% of individuals continue to marry within their ethnic group. This is driven mostly by the tendency of non-Hispanic, European-descent individuals to marry among their own.
In the Pew Research Centre report, authors Gretchen Livingston and Anna Brown credit the rise in interethnic marriage with a corresponding change in public attitudes across time. For example, as recently as 1990, a staggering 63% of those not of African descent expressed disapproval towards the idea of a family members’ marriage to someone of African descent. By 2016, that rate had tumbled to 14%.
For comparison, this rate of disapproval was substantially higher than the same perspective from the other side, that of non-white people disapproving of their family members marrying someone of a white background, which stood at 4%. Among those of Asian or Hispanic descent, the same disapproving view of intermarriage stood at around 9%.
So if the rise in interethnic marriage has led to a decrease in negativity among public attitudes toward interethnic marriage over the last two generations, can we also link this increasing interethnicity to increasingly positive attitudes on that topic? A recent addition to attitude surveys is the question of whether interethnic marriage is good for US society, and according to the report the news seems favourable. The proportion of respondents saying that interethnic marriage is a good thing for US society rose from 24% in 2010 to 39% in 2017. For comparison, around 9% said that interethnic marriage was bad for US society, and 52% said that interethnic marriage made no difference.
I believe that the authors were correct to identify the rise of interethnic marriage as having contributed to a decrease in negative attitudes, and increase in positive attitudes. But I also believe that, as Gordon Allport predicted in The Nature of Prejudice, in 1954, it is necessary for government officials to lead the way in their words and deeds if interethnic couples are to be able to marry safely in the US. Civil rights-era shows such as Star Trek in 1968, alongside movies such as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in 1967, both mirrored and helped contribute to changing public attitudes in their own way.
Has the “Trump effect” made a difference to attitudes? Based partly on trends I noticed while writing Identity and Interethnic Marriage in the United States, I suspect that some racists have felt increasingly emboldened in stating their opposition to interethnic marriage, especially towards couples comprised of black men and white women. Yet among the 70% of Americans who are not Trump supporters, the rise in interethnic marriage will not be a subject of major concern (and, in fact, the rate will continue to rise).
There is no comparable data to that from the Pew Research Centre that covers the UK, but as the political fallout over Brexit continues I would speculate that the UK has its own issues to address. For example, what will be the fate of marriages between EU residents and UK citizens once Brexit is fully implemented? Nevertheless, I would suppose that interethnic marriages in the UK will continue to rise as young people (in particular) increasingly marry without limiting themselves to “traditional” ethnic boundaries.
In any event, on either side of the Atlantic, 50 years and two generations on from “the kiss”, we can see how far we have progressed – and how far we still have to go.