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Government, Politics & Issues

Interracial couples still face challenges of acceptance, but new issues present themselves

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2009 - This love story starts at Red Lobster. She's 18, a senior at Fort Dodge high school, Iowa. He's 20, in his sophomore year studying political science at Iowa Central Community College.

Rebel Saffold III was a server. Sarah Bjorklund was a hostess. They'd known each other through work, but had always been dating other people.

Her upbeat energy drew Saffold in. "She's just like a ray of sunshine," he says.


Bjorklund liked getting to know a person and a culture she'd never experienced.

Her mom loved him, too. She'd always ask to sit in his section and talked and joked and "everything's great and fine as long as we're friends," he says.

But they were about to become more. When both were single that same year, they started dating. They'd head off to Ames to shop, having whole day getaways, playing a driving and shooting game in the arcade, where he did the driving and she did the shooting. He'd take her out anywhere she'd want to eat.

For a year and a half, they dated. Bjorklund's parents didn't know.

And it wasn't good when they found out. Bjorklund's mom told Bjorklund that this wasn't what she'd envisioned for her when she was born.

Not the part where she was dating a great guy.

Not the part where he was nuts about her.

What Bjorklund's mom hadn't envisioned was the part where that man was black.

The court, the law and Loving

That early spark between the server and the hostess is pretty simple. But their ability to have a relationship, as people from different races, is a little more complicated.

The history of issues facing interracial couples is well-documented. (See below) But it wasn't until 1967, with Loving v. the Commonwealth of Virginia, that the Supreme Court ruled that laws against interracial marriages were unconstitutional.

And even after the union was recognized, interracial couples still faced major challenges from both overt and covert racism. But like the law, that's changed, at least in some ways.

"I think more biracial couples have found that their relationships are more socially accepted because it's become more common," says Richard Middleton, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Middleton teaches courses on law and politics as well as those about race and ethnic politics.

And the statistics for both interracial couples and people's acceptance of them have increased over time. According to the Census Bureau, interracial marriages made up .7 percent of total marriages in 1970. In a report using Census data, Michael J. Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University, estimates that interracial marriages made up 7.5 percent of the total in 2005.

Similarly, in Gallup's 2007 Minority Rights and Relations survey, 77 percent of Americans said they approved of marriages between blacks and whites.

But that acceptance could all depend on where you live. On the West Coast, Middleton says, interracial couples may not draw as much attention as they might in the South, for instance.

St. Louis is a mixed bag, he thinks, with both Southern and progressive influences.

And for the server and the hostess in Fort Dodge, location may have had at least something to do with the troubles they would soon face.

Time to go

The beginning of their relationship, when things are supposed to be all glowy and good, was full of stress and hurt for Saffold and Bjorklund.

For her, going against what her parents wanted was huge. But for Saffold, adversity was kind of his normal.

Sometimes it felt like Bjorklund sided with her parents. They'd talk, get on the same page, he says, and she'd stick up for him more. But Saffold knew he wasn't welcome in his girlfriend's home.

"There'd be times when I'd be there for 20 minutes and then her mom would stand up at the top of the stairs and say, 'Sarah, it's time for him to go.'"

Bjorklund would run up to talk with her mom, come down in tears and tell him goodbye.

"She grew up on a farm in the middle of rural Iowa," Bjorklund says of her mom. "She was always wondering what are people gonna think? What are gonna be the affects for your children?"

Still, Bjorklund kept dating Saffold. The relationship was worth it.

"But I also wasn't willing to give up on my family."

Negative feels still underground

Anita Cohn knows well the challenges interracial couples face. She's a licensed clinical social worker in Creve Coeur and often counsels interracial couples. The No. 1 issue interracial couples face is where to live, Cohn thinks.

"St. Louis is pretty segregated, still," she adds.


There's also the stress that can come with the relationship, things like assuming people are staring at them because of their skin color.

That stress can chip away at the couple.

And then there are the families who won't accept the person their child is dating. "And that causes pain, needless to say, which transfers on to the children."

In 1970, only 1.2 percent of couples who divorced were interracial, according to the Center for Disease Control's National Vital Statistics Report from that year. The number rose, as well as the general divorce rates, to 3 percent in 1990.

Rosenfeld, of Stanford, says via e-mail that good data on divorces among interracial couples are missing because studies used by scholars often include small sample sizes and therefore few interracial couples.

Basically, you have to run the numbers yourself, says Rose Kreider, a demographer in the fertility and family statistics bureau with the Census Bureau.

For her dissertation in 1999, Kreider compared data collected by the National Survey of Families and Households from the same couples at two different times, about four years apart.

Spouses of different races have a higher rate of divorce, she found, but no more so than with other factors, like marrying at a young age.

In 2008, the National Council on Family Relations published a study looking at interracial divorce, and the researchers, Jenifer Bratter and Rosalind King had similar findings.

Like Kreider, they found interracial couples are more vulnerable to divorce. But not all interracial couples are alike. For instance, compared to white couples, those couples with the highest divorce rates were white females and non-white males. White men and non-white women were no different than white couples.

Bratter and King point to several explanations, including stigmas that are as much about race as they are about gender. Specifically, the study points out, white women are considered as threats to black women's marriage prospects. They're also thought to be unqualified to raise biracial children because they have no experience as a minority.

In her lifetime, Cohn thinks that the issues have changed some, but they're still around.

"Racism has not diminished at all," she says. "I'd say it's a little more underground."

To the Lou

In 2003, Saffold and Bjorklund moved to St. Louis for her master's program at Washington University. They each found apartments in University City and settled in.

Then, on an October evening in 2004, Saffold called Bjorklund and claimed his car had broken down in Forest Park. They had dinner reservations and she started flipping out that they'd be late.

She hung up on him and showed up, still yelling. He reassured her that the restaurant was holding a table.

"And then I got on my knee and proposed."

Bjorklund laughed and cried and put the ring on her finger. Once he made sure that meant yes, the two headed off for dinner.

Their marriage was planned the following May in Fort Dodge, and tucked inside an e-mail to Saffold from Bjorklund's mom, there was an apology.

I'm sorry I've treated you this way for all these years. Here are the details on the reception.

Bjorklund says that after years of other people telling her mom she was wrong, she finally listened when she heard it from her pastor.

Still, they've never really talked about things, even though Saffold tried.

The world is in your living room

Certainly the most obvious change for interracial couples is that it's legal to marry someone of a different race. But there are other, more subtle differences, too.

"I think for many biracial couples, historically the most fundamental concern was integrating into the community and having equal rights," Middleton says.

With those rights recognized, the couple is able to focus on other, less basic things.

"Now, it may be what type of racial identity does my child take on?" Middleton says. How will that couple raise their child? he continues. Will they be accepted? What example should be set? And how do you help that child get to know both cultures? How do you experience them?

Middleton's gone through this himself, both personally and with his stepson, who's 14. Middleton is black and his wife, Jessica, is Mexican American. There are some big cultural differences, but the couple works through those differences while seeking to help the other see where they're coming from.

"That's been the key," he says. "My wife has been willing and I've been patient."

And the benefits of an interracial relationship are many, he says -- access to another culture, food, music, customs.

"The world is in your living room."

Yeah, it's nice to talk about common threads as a concept, he says.

"But there's nothing like actually living it."


Meet Nylah

In her room in their Olivette home, 2-year-old Nylah has dolls that look like her, light brown skin and softly curled hair. She has an Asian doll and a Hispanic doll, too. All she's missing is one that looks like her mommy, who's blonde.

And soon, she'll have a new little baby to play with. The Saffolds are expecting their second daughter in April.


Sarah Saffold, now 29 and an adjunct with Washington University's School of Social Work, hasn't scripted out the talk they'll all have someday about their family. They'll get there. But she feels excited in that bubbly way her husband loves that their children will get the joy of knowing two cultures, just as their mom and dad have.

"I see more things that he goes through," she says, like getting pulled over by police. "And I can recognize that actually, these things definitely still occur."

"I've been given the opportunity to experience a great knowledge base of what's available in the world because of being able to see how other people operate," says Rebel Saffold, now 31 and director of development services with MICDS.

And now, things are good with her families, too.

"Right now, I mean, her mom loves me," he says. "She's Reb this, Reb that. Calls and sends me jokes, e-mails me about different things."

They've all moved on, and Rebel Saffold thinks the world will, too. Eventually.

Interracial couples will become more and more normal, he says.

For both of them, it doesn't make sense to hang on to the hurt that happened early on. In a way, Saffold thinks, that's as bad as inflicting it.

He'd rather live out his love story with his wife and children, and let the living of that life prove everything else wrong.


1661 Virginia passes legislation prohibiting interracial marriage

1715 Maryland makes cohabitation between a white person and a black person illegal

1850 to 1860, the biracial slave population increased 67 percent, while the black slave population only increased 20 percent

1924 Virginia passes a law that makes it illegal for whites to marry a person with "a single drop of Negro blood." At this time, marriage between blacks and whites was prohibited in 38 states.

1950s Nearly half of the states have anti-miscegenation laws, not only prohibiting black and white unions, but also those with people who were biracial, Mongolian, Malaysian and Native American.

1964 The Supreme Court rules in McLaughlin vs. Florida against a Florida statute allowing for more severe penalties for interracial cohabitation and adultery than for those of the same race

1967 In Loving vs. the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional. At the time, 15 states still had such laws.

1970 Interracial couples made up .7 percent of the population

1980 Interracial couples made up 2 percent of the population

1992 Interracial couples made up 2.2 percent of the population

2000 For the first time since the Census began, people could mark more than one race for their ethnicity. That year, 2.4 percent of the population did just that.

2005 Interracial marriages make up 7.5 percent of the population

2009 A Louisiana Justice of the Peace refuses to marry an interracial couple, citing concern for the couples future children.

SOURCE: Organization of American Historians, U.S. Census Bureau, Stanford University

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