We have yet to arrive in a postracial America, but a new study finds evidence that racial barriers are coming down: between 1980 and 2008, the rate of interracial marriage between blacks and whites increased rapidly, even outpacing marriage between whites and other ethnic groups, including Asians, Hispanics and American Indians.
In 1980, only 5% of black men married white women; in 2008, 14% did. Still, the total number of marriages between blacks and whites remains smaller than those between whites and other racial and ethnic groups. Compared with blacks, proportionally more men in other groups marry outside their race: for example, 38% of Asian American men and Hispanic men married white women in 2008.
MORE: Is Marriage for White People?
“The number of marriages between whites and African Americans is undeniably increasing rapidly, but it is still a small number,” said Zhenchao Qian, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University, in a statement. “Our results point to better race relations in 2008 than 1980, but we still have a way to go.”
Looking at trends in intermarriage is a complex matter. The authors point out that there are two factors at play: supply, or who’s available in the market to marry at any given time, and demand, people’s choices of who they’d be willing to marry.
Between 1980 and 2008, while marriage between blacks and whites was rising, the data show only a small increase in marriage between whites and Hispanics, and stagnant rates of intermarriage between whites and Asians. This may have to do with the supply side of the equation, concluded the authors, who relied on 1980 U.S. Census data as well as data from the 2008 American Community Survey, an ongoing survey conducted by the Census Bureau, for their study.
Slowing rates of intermarriage may be explained by surges of immigration by Hispanics and Asians to the U.S. — that meant U.S. born Hispanics and Asians had a bigger pool of potential marriage partners from their own racial and ethnic groups. The study found that in fact marriage between U.S.-born and foreign-born Asians and Hispanics increased significantly from 2000 to 2008.
MORE: Should Race Play a Role in Custody Decisions?
Marriage between blacks and whites is another story, however. “There wasn’t a great increase in black immigrants into the United States, so the rise in black-white intermarriages really suggests greater racial tolerance and a new openness to marrying outside one’s own race,” said study co-author Daniel Lichter, professor of policy analysis and management and sociology at Cornell University. “This suggests a weakening of the racial boundaries.”
Unlike previous studies on intermarriage, the current paper had the advantage of tracking new marriages that were begun in each year between 1980 and 2008, which allowed researchers to observe how marriage trends are responding to social conditions.
One key finding: highly educated blacks and highly educated whites are now more likely to marry than their less educated counterparts. That’s notable because while educated Asians and Hispanics have been more likely to marry whites, that wasn’t the case with blacks.
MORE: Love Isn’t Color-Blind: White Online Daters Spurn Blacks
“It used to be that race trumped everything, including education, when it came to marriage between blacks and whites,” Qian said. “But that is changing. “
The study appears in the October issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
LIST: Mixed-Race Celebrities on Race, in their Own Words
Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.