This is the time of year when we set aside time to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reflect on his influence. Last week, classrooms across the country re-enacted some of his speeches and pupils read his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ together. They need to, and no American can call himself truly educated if he hasn’t read many of his most popular arguments.
King’s lyrics are part of the canon of American political writing and belong to a long tradition of Enlightenment thought. His best belongs to the same intellectual anthology as that of Jefferson, Lincoln and Thomas Paine. The essence of American aspirations for freedom can be understood by cobbling together a few paragraphs from Paine’s “The Rights of Man”, Jefferson’s second paragraph from the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. , as well as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Probably few readers have the same hazy affection for these words as I do. But they can’t help but move even the most cynical observer of the American experience. Even an hour spent reading these words could allow us to appreciate each other better as we build a more perfect union.
The past few years have been hard on the perception of the growing racial civility and justice that nearly all Americans hoped to mark with the passage of time. Unfortunately, it is difficult to write about race, in part because so many minefields have been laid by people in bad faith. In addition, there are too many goalkeepers to discuss it, although it is a subject that concerns us all. Fortunately, this column is not about race. These are the decisions of individual Americans as they build the building blocks of our Republic and our economy.
A vibrant and growing economy is a tender thing, which can be easily disrupted by a lack of trust and goodwill. Trade, employment, capital investment and the purchase of goods through a long supply chain are all based on extensive trust. As I have already noted, the opposite of war is not peace, it is trade. Peace asks of us nothing more than the temporary suppression of violence. Commerce between people requires trust, cooperation and interdependence. These are more difficult, but enduring, demands on our humanity.
History provides no example of long-term economic success based on any social and political system other than that which puts the individual first. Thus, political philosophies that elevate race, gender, creed or any other identity above the individual are ultimately incompatible with a prosperous economy. In all directions, 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 ongoing decisions by ordinary Americans about how they organize their lives.
A look at the demographics suggests that the American people are making progress in addressing racial issues at our rapid pace. Gross inequality still exists in many places, along with many issues to reflect on and act on. But the trend is almost universally positive, towards more acceptance and opportunity. For example, today black women attend college at higher rates than white men. Few people listening to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 would have imagined that. Of course, this could usher in different equity issues, particularly around gender, but I’ll save that for another column.
The data that surprises me the most is the explosive growth of Métis marriages and children. For fairly obvious reasons, it is the most revealing element of the history of the integration of our country. 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 estimated that in 1967 some 3% of new marriages were mixed.
In 2015, more than one in six newlyweds and one in 10 marriages were mixed race. This trend is accelerating and is much more pronounced among better educated adults. Part of this increase is due to individuals identifying as multiracial. Yet it represents a significant change in the behavior of families and communities.
This phenomenon is not only linked to race. Interfaith marriage has gone from one in five in the 1960s to one in three today. Of course, changing religion for a spouse is not uncommon, but even half a century ago some interfaith marriages were deeply frowned upon. It should come as no surprise that generations of white Americans who fled religious persecution hold firm to certain prejudices. Along the same lines, same-sex marriage is relatively new, accounting for about one in every 120 marriages.
I focus on marriage because it is more effective than polls in revealing general feelings about race and faith. I sympathize with many who argue that intermarriage changes cultures and congregations, but the ability to marry whoever you want is a human right. With this in mind, it is time to build new cultures and congregations. This is something we Americans do better than anyone. We should also view these changes through the prism of our own family experiences.
Three generations ago, marriage between an American of Scots-Irish descent, like myself, and an Irish Catholic would have been strongly opposed by both families. I can cite examples of deeply unfulfilling lives as a result. The likelihood that either would marry an African American would also be low. Neither case would be remarkable today.
When I was born in Maryland, intermarriage was illegal, but not often enforced. Today it’s so common that the raw probability of one of my three children marrying someone of another race is about 50%, but the actual probability is higher. The rate of intermarriage is rising rapidly, and college-educated young adults are more likely to marry someone of a different race. In addition, my three children pursue military careers and therefore enter the most desegregated institutions in the country. Veterans are more likely than non-veterans to be married to someone of another race.
Unsurprisingly, these data imply that exposure to diverse people drives these changes. So whatever amplification of racial discord we might perceive today, where race relations arguably matter most—in the realm of the family—progress is accelerating. This does not mean that there is no more work to be done elsewhere. Yet I can think of few better testimonies to the Enlightenment-inspired vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. than this one. When deciding whom 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.”
Michael J. Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and associate professor of economics at Ball State University’s Miller College of Business.