Quantitative literacy is tough! Or, I had no idea that, in 1958, 96% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage!

Mark Palko linked to this data-rich cartoon by Randall Munroe:


And I was stunned, first by the data on interracial marriage and then, retrospectively, by my earlier ignorance of these data.

Was approval of interracial marriage only 4% in 1958? I had no idea. I looked it up at the Gallup site and it seems to be so. But it’s just hard for me to get my head around this. I mean, sure, I know that attitudes on racial issues have changed a lot, but still . . . 4 percent?? If you’d’ve asked me, I might have guessed 30 percent, or 20 percent, certainly I never would’ve given any number close to 4 percent.

I also learned from the Gallup report that “black-white marriages . . . still represent less than 1% of all married couples.” This sounded low to me, but then I thought about it: if 13% of Americans are black, and 7% of blacks marry white people, then this comes to 1% of all married couples. 7% is low, but it’s not as low as 1%.

In some ways that second number (the total percentage of marriages that are between blacks and whites) is somewhat of a trick question. Still, I’m surprised how far off my intuition was on both these numbers (the rate of approval of interracial marriage in 1958, and the current percentage of marriages that are between whites and blacks). Indeed, I still can’t fit the 1958 approval number into my understanding of public opinion.

I’m reminded of our discussion with Charles Murray a couple years ago regarding the claim that “it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father.” Murray and several commenters seemed convinced that it is “obsessively nonjudgmental” to not think it is morally wrong for a woman etc. It was a fun and somewhat disturbing discussion because I really couldn’t understand these commenters and they really couldn’t understand me.

I similarly have difficulty understanding how 96% of Americans in 1958 could’ve disapproved of interracial marriages. I mean, sure, the data are there, and I guess I could fashion a logical argument, something along the lines of 50% were just flat-out prejudiced and 46% were not personally prejudiced but felt that, in practice, an interracial marriage probably wouldn’t work out in a prejudiced world. Still, I never would’ve guessed the numbers would be so high. My continued astonishment here is a sign to me that I need to further rejigger my mental model of public opinion to handle this data point.

In addition to this point having general statistical relevance—the idea that a single data point, like a single story (as discussed in my paper with Basbøll) has the potential to falsify a model and transform one’s worldview—it also relates to what I think is a fundamental issue in political science: as I wrote in that earlier discussion:

We often have the tendency to think that our political opponents agree with us, deep down, even if they don’t want to admit it. Hence you see Thomas Frank trying to explain the phenomenon of ordinary conservative voters, or various conservative politicians insisting that ordinary blacks and hispanics are fundamentally conservative and are voting for Democrats by mistake, or Charles Murray imagining that my friends and I agree with him that it’s wrong for a woman to have a baby without a male partner. . . . [and this contributes to] the difficulty of understanding across demographic, geographic, and partisan divides.

35 thoughts on “Quantitative literacy is tough! Or, I had no idea that, in 1958, 96% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage!

  1. (Kahan strikes again!)

    A lot of people think that “it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father.” So, it behooves you to learn it and understand why they believe it in spite of various criticisms.


    • John:

      No smiley-face needed. I agree completely: the first step is to recognize that a certain data point is unexpected (in the above case, that 96% of Americans surveyed in 1958 disapproved of interracial marriages); the next step is to incorporate this fact into one’s mental model of the world. As a political scientist, I am well aware of the importance of understanding attitudes that I happen to disagree with. One of my frustrations with Murray in that earlier exchange was that he didn’t seem to recognize that many people disagreed with him on that particular issue; he seemed to think that just about everyone agreed with him but was just refusing to admit it.

  2. I don’t know how old you are, but I’m shocked that you are shocked. Are people really so unaware of American social and legal history? In 1958 Little Rock closed all the white high schools rather than integrate and 1959 is the year Prince Edward County closed all of its schools rather than integrate. Emmett Till was lynched for whistling at a white woman in 1955. Worth reading http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/06/the-miscegenation-ball/58149/

    I use the survey questions on interracial marriage when I talk about social acceptability bias in survey responses.

    • Elin:

      Sure, and at some level if the survey is correct I indeed should not be surprised. But, still, 96% is 96% of the U.S., not just white people in the south. 96% is not just a comfortable majority, it’s almost everybody. That still surprises me.

      • I wasn’t so surprised about the number at first. But, after thinking about this for a while, I’m also starting to think that the number may be a little high. Perhaps it was meant to say 96% of the White population?

        • I was thinking the same thing, on the Gallup site they don’t start breaking things out by race until the late 60s, and I’m wondering how much they bothered to sample in the African American community in earlier years.

        • Or the percent for the white population could be higher.

          I think you are being a bit naive about racial attitudes in the north. Don’t think that NYC represents even all of New York State, and don’t think that even when there might be polite talk about race that it meant that whites wanted blacks in their families. There’s a reason “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was such a hit and so controversial http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guess_Who%27s_Coming_to_Dinner in 1967.

          Remember too that in Borgardus’ Social Distance measure “would marry” was the closest you could go. https://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Bogardus/Bogardus_1933.html also take a look at Table II here for some even older data … I don’t know if they would even have asked about the legal issue at that time https://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Bogardus/1928/1928_02.html.

          (Wow that whole book is pretty interesting to read.)

        • It looks interesting but something I don’t understand ” Armenians, Chinese, English, French, Germans, Greeks, Hindus, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, mulattoes, Negroes, and Turks. With three exceptions, these are Asiatic and African races – nonEuropeans”

          Eh? Three exceptions? At the most stringent interpretaion of European I get at least 4. And I really don’t understand Mexicans being Asiatic or African.

        • Well, I said it was interesting reading. :)

          I don’t know about the Mexican classification except that the social science of the 1920s would probably have called them mixed or other and so I doubt he was referring to them as Asian or African specifically, but rather as non-Euopean.

          I’m also sure that when they would have spoken of “Europe” they would have meant Western/Nothern Europe. In other words, I think the Greeks would have been seen by Borgardus as with the Armenians and Turks as some “other” near eastern/Ottoman/Levant/Orthodox-Jewish-Moslem category. Actually you can see the Greeks moving towards the Euro group means over time in this image

          Notions of race and answer to the “who is white?” question have changed dramatically in the last century which most likely contributes to some of the change in answers the public gives to these surveys.

    • Shravan:

      According to the Gallup link given above, the survey question as currently asked is, “Do you approve or disapprove of marriages between blacks and whites?” Between 1968 and 1978, the wording was, “marriages between whites and nonwhites.” In 1958, “marriages between white and colored people.” They did not seem to have asked the question between 1959 and 1967.

      • The Gallup poll says that 83% of people polled in the south *approve* of white/non-white marriage in 2013. Is that plausible? It would have been helpful if the breakup in approval rating had been by “race” (whatever their definition is of that term) of the pollee. And maybe people feel compelled to say the right thing in a poll, rather than what they’d actually do in a real life marriage decision.

        There is a very disturbing book about (among many other things) the black/white divide called Dataclysm, which doesn’t really jive with the data here. See http://dataclysm.org/

      • I wish SDA would let you embed results but you can look at the GSS results for “125a. Do you think there should be laws against marriages between (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) and whites?” from 1972 to 2002 by race.

        They seem to have stopped asking once white opposition got to 89%.

        Too bad they don’t have data on interviewer race until after that, it would be really interesting to see that.

  3. Academic political scientists have an “issue” with race. Every presidential election since 1964 has had race as a subtext (or even a text) yet the elections literature is concentrated on economic and sometimes social issues. The fact that the way these issues are perceived is (somewhat?)(largely?) influenced by race is ignored. A civil war caused largely by race in which up to a third of the able-bodied men on one side died is a cultural patrimony that can only be ignored by researchers who blind themselves to it. To put it in your cultural history, could one describe European politics without examining the role of anti-Semitism over the centuries. Ghetto is not an American term but rather an Italian word used to describe where Jews were isolated.

  4. I may have news for you: it is probably still nearly the same, give (!) or take a few percent. Why? Because if a respondent has a feeling that an interviewer might concur with, approve of, or at least not criticize a certain opinion, he/she will answer rather truthfully. But in today’s world of “political correctness” no one dares to use certain words or voice certain opinions. Gays may have come out of the “closet” but the racial question is still the subject of much bigotry in the US. And to prove it: you do not have a “black” president (Obama) nor did you have a “black” secretary of state and chief of staff (Powell – Jamaican) and the list could go on. Only if there were a truly slave-descendant FEMALE “black” president in power (and survive a term …) would I say that the above figures had truly shifted …

  5. Do people answer the more anonymous seeming online surveys less politically correctly than face to face surveys?

    Is this sort of systematic bias observed in the survey industry? e.g. respondants displaying more “true”, “hate” behavior in online surveys.

    • Of course, that’s why I said above that I use this question when I talk about social acceptability bias. People who work on surveys think about this a lot, and there is definitely experimental research on your question. Yes people answer differently on questions like this when the data is collected anonymously. They also will answer some questions differently depending on race and gender of interviewer, again which questions is the really fascinating thing to look at. That applies to both attitudes and behaviors.

      In fact I would think that in the 1958 data the social acceptability bias would have been in the direction of disapproving. If you notice in the cartoon, the sharpest increase was right after support went over 50%.

      Not a bad overview http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_desirability_bias

      Also there are at least three different questions here:

      Do you approve (disapprove) or interracial marriage?
      Do you support laws outlawing interracial marriage?
      Would marry someone of a different race?

      Not only will the acceptability bias differ for those three questions respondents also understand the differences between them. That’s why when people try to get around it by asking “Most people disapprove of interracial marriage” (because that lets you agree without saying you agree) it drives me crazy.

  6. An interracial approval rate of 4% in 1958 does not surprise me, since at that time there was a high rate of disapproval of even mixed-religion marriages. For example, I remember my mother giving my brother the following advice when he went off to college, around 1961: “Don’t hang around with the wrong kind of people, and don’t go out with Catholics.”
    (Protestants going out with Jews wasn’t considered as big a deal, since “of course” the Protestant and Jewish mothers would agree that the relationship should be broken up before it got serious, whereas Catholics were perceived as eager to convert someone to their religion.)

    • > 4 percent?? If you’d’ve asked me, I might have guessed 30 percent, or 20 percent, certainly I never would’ve given any number close to 4 percent.

      4% is about what I would have guessed – within a factor of two. We’re talking 1958 not 1988. Also, consistent with Martha’s anecdote, I’d be surprised if there was >30% approval for interfaith marriage in ’58.

  7. Why my dad joined the army…

    My father was a clergyman, and exempt from the draft. When my sister was born, in 1942, the birth announcement reached the headmaster of the prep school he had graduated from, who offered my father a position as chaplain at the school, which he accepted.

    One of the duties of the chaplain was to teach “Sacred Studies” classes. At some point in his teaching of this class, one of the students apparently raised the issue of interracial marriage, and my dad remarked that he would be quite happy if his daughter (my sister) were to marry a black man (a “Negro” in those days). The comment got to one of the parents, who complained to the headmaster, who fired my father.

    Suddenly out of a job, and with a family to take care of, he volunteered as a chaplain in the army, and shipped out to Europe in mid-1943. At his own request he served in a segregated unit; all the enlisted men were black, and the officers (including my dad) were white.

    The fact is, that although the polls that Andrew mentions were taking in 1958, and this was 15 years earlier, the fact that the attitudes towards interracial marriage in 1958 weren’t much different from 1943 doesn’t surprise me in the least. I do recall that there was a young woman, my own age, whose parents were in my father’s parish at that time and who was a member of our youth group, who was dating interracially. (I still remember her name). I know that amongst my contemporaries, this was very controversial and much disapproved. I believe that she did eventually marry an African-American man.

    Daddy was very much ahead of his time in his attitude towards these issues. In the thirties, starting at least in seminary, he was active in civil rights issues, and remained so in later life. He had many African-American friends, who visited our home and slept over, and whom he visited with our family. I can recall falling asleep at age 7 in the home of the author and poet Jean Toomer, who was quite well known.

    • Bill:

      I see what you’re saying, it’s still hard for me to handle the 4% thing. 20% would’ve sounded right to me, with the idea that only the 1/5 of the people who were actively integrationist on racial issues would have said yes on the survey question. Or maybe 15% or even 10%. But 4% . . . that’s still a shocker to me. Again, I’m not saying the poll was wrong, I realize that it’s my intuition that needs fixing!

      • Again, I think the religious analogy is instructive: My mother never would have argued for separate schools or neighborhoods for people of different religions, and she invited Catholics and Jews into her home. But interfaith marriage was quite another matter.

  8. In a way, the 4% approval in 1958 may well be too high. My guess is that neither Andrew nor many of those commenting were alive back then to see (as adults) the segregated toilets and water fountains in the South. One reason that the intuition of Andrew and those who comment on his blog is so off about social matters is that this sample is–in the statistical sense–very biased. I would predict that hardly any of the above attend megachurches where climate change, evolution, birth control, gun restrictions, Agenda 21, etc., might not garner even the magical 4%.

    • My experience corroborates what Paul says. I didn’t experience Jim Crow laws as a youngster, but I did see plenty of prejudice in the people around me. It wasn’t as in-your-face as in the South, but it sure was there.

  9. As a bit of a separate point, the chart is pretty misleading, in that the interracial marriage questions about approve/disapprove, and the same-sex marriage questions are about “Should it be legal?”

  10. The sharp jump in the red line pictured in the graph and labeled as “Full Legal Access: 1967” refers to the famous Supreme Court case ironically known as “Loving vs. Virginia” :


    “Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States had been in place in certain states since before the United States declared independence [!]. At the time that the decision was handed down, 17 States, all Southern States, had such laws.”

    “Based on an anonymous tip,[8] local police raided their home [of Richard and Mildred Loving] at night, hoping to find them having sex, which was also a crime according to Virginia law. When the officers found the Lovings sleeping in their bed, Mildred pointed out their marriage certificate [from Washington, D.C.] on the bedroom wall. That certificate became the evidence for the criminal charge of ‘cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth’ that was brought against them.”

    The trial judge said

    “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

    Fortunately for the Lovings, he was white and she was black; the other way round and who knows what violence would ensue. In case your intuition leads to the conclusion that we will never return to such discriminatory views, consider


    where the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief, Kelvin Cochran, wrote a book in which he claimed

    “Uncleanness — whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, all other forms of sexual perversion.”

    And, “In another section, Cochran wrote that ‘naked men refuse to give in, so they pursue sexual fulfillment through multiple partners, with the opposite sex, the same sex and sex outside of marriage and many other vile, vulgar and inappropriate ways which defile their body-temple and dishonor God.’”

    As a possible measure of progress indicating that 1958 is indeed a long time ago, Cochran is an African-American who back in 1958 would never have risen to that post. Unfortunately, In case your optimism is welling up and your intuitions are not that far off the mark, consider this from


    “[Jack] Whitley [head of the Big Stone County, Minnesota Republican Party] wrote that he opposes waterboarding as ‘a waste of resources. They are muslims [sic], they are terrorist, we know where they are from, we know where their buddies are, we know where thier [sic] mosque’s [sic] are, we know millions of these parasites travel to Mecca every year and when … FRAG ‘EM!’”

    “Whitley said he sees no reason to apologize. In a follow-up Facebook post Thursday, he wrote: ‘I will not apologize and I will not compromise. They either need to repent except [sic] Jesus Chist [sic] or leave the country … If you want to consider this a call to arms, then so be it.’”

    As of this posting, Whitley is still the head of the Big Stone County Republican Party but he has been fired from his day job in a hardware store in Ortonville, MN.

  11. What percentage of black women today approve of black-white marriages in the sense of thinking society should encourage them? I don’t see all that much enthusiasm today among black women for white women marrying black men. A much higher percentage of black men are married to white women than the percentage of black women married to white men.

  12. Its not that hard to understand what’s going on.

    To modern sensibilities, being against interracial marriage is a trait associated with being a racist, which is strongly coded as “bad.” But we as a culture have thrown our own history down the memory hole, and constructed a narrative of racial unification that permits everyone to pretend that their ancestors, and their fellow countrymen, were basically good people. Actual racism is relegated to boogeymen that feature in no one’s actual ancestry or cultural heritage.

    So we’ve ended up with a country that acknowledges that there was a lot of racism going around in 1958, but which is incapable of identifying any actual racists among those we know who were alive at the time.

    The 96% statistic throws that back in our faces. It tells us that our myth can’t possibly be correct.

    • Thank you for posting this. I think it supports my intuition that a lot of people on this thread who weren’t surprised by the interracial marriage approval rate are broken clocks.

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