The Persistence of Racial Boundaries

The relative rarity of Black/White interracial relationships has long represented rigid social boundaries. However, the prevalence of these relationships has increased, which many consider evidence that the importance of racial hierarchies is on the decline. One way to measure whether or not race is a status marker on marriage markets is whether people “trade” race for other status resources, such as higher education levels. In their recent Sociology of Race and Ethnicity article, Florencia Torche and Peter Rich investigate whether and how status exchange in Black/White marriages and cohabitations has changed since 1980.

Status exchange posits that in order to “win” a higher-status White partner, racial minorities must exchange socioeconomic resources. That is, Black partners with high levels of education, particularly Black men, will partner with less-educated Whites. Using U.S. Census data from 1980 to 2010, Torche and Rich investigate whether the prevalence of status exchange has changed over time, whether the prevalence of status exchange differs between marriage and cohabiting Black/White relationships, and how exactly status exchange works in Black/White relationships.

Contrary to what an increase in Black/White relationships over time may imply, status exchange between Black and White partners is observed at the same levels in 2010 as in 1980, and status exchange does not vary between marriage and cohabitations. The authors further find that this status exchange operates such that both Blacks and Whites with higher education levels are both more likely to partner with Whites, indicating that these status processes are not purely an exchange of race status-for-education. People with higher education status, regardless of race, are more likely to have a higher racial status partner. Even as Black/White relationships have become more common, racial hierarchies have retained their salience for relationship formation.