In California, A Long and Pivotal History of Interracial Marriage

By Julia Tong, Ethnic Media Service As interracial marriage becomes more accepted and common nationally, California stands out. According to PEW, the state exceeds the national average of 17% of newlyweds being interracial couples, while the […]

In California, A Long and Pivotal History of Interracial Marriage

The case had the potential to set an important precedent against anti-miscegenation laws. Instead, it sparked instant backlash from white politicians. In the week after the decision, the California State Legislature promptly amended Section 60 to include “Malayans” in the list of races prevented from marrying whites, further entrenching interracial marriage restrictions in state laws.

Section 60 did not face another challenge until the 1940s, when the conscription of white men during World War II allowed women and other people of color to formally enter the workplace. This created opportunities for interracial relationships that did not exist before.

One such couple was Andrea Perez (whose race was listed as white, despite being Mexican American), and Sylvester Davis, a Black man. The couple was barred from marrying by Section 60 and appealed by arguing that anti-miscegenation laws violated their religious freedom.

In Perez vs. Sharp, the court agreed—but not solely on the basis of first amendment rights. Importantly, the case finally affirmed marriage as a “fundamental right of free men.” The majority opinion also explicitly refuted many racist arguments against interracial marriage and questioned the validity of previously accepted racial classification schemes.

Perez created a domino effect against anti-miscegenation laws: 14 states subsequently struck down their interracial marriage bans. The rest were eliminated by the landmark Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia (1967), which cited Perez as a precedent. The case was also referenced in In re marriage cases, the California case which affirmed gay marriage rights in 2008.

Though California played a pivotal role in officially legalizing interracial marriage, it would be decades until taboos surrounding cross-cultural couples began to fade across the state the nation.

Interracial marriage today

Recent interracial marriage trends are heavily influenced by the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which opened immigration to more Asian and Hispanic populations. Subsequently, as scholar Hsin-Yi Cindy Liu observed, interracial marriage became a sign of integration into mainstream US society. This trend is reflected in California’s increasing diversification, as well as the over 200% increase in the state’s mixed race population from 2010 to 2020 alone.

Priscilla and Jose Gamez with their two children. Priscilla is the daughter of Hmong immigrants, while Jose traces his roots to both Indigenous Mexican and German ancestry. Their story is among those told in the California Love Stories project.

Today, couples benefit from favorable public approval of interracial marriage—at a time where immigration and an increasingly diverse California creates more opportunities for it. Simultaneously, however, racism remains an ongoing issue in both the state and the nation. The racialization of the US border—a direct echo of past xenophobic rhetoric that restricted both immigration and interracial marriage—is a particularly relevant example.

This complex history creates different effects for couples of all different races and cultural backgrounds. California Love Stories, a collaboration across 20 ethnic media outlets statewide, shows the lived experiences of interracial couples in a society that is, though more accepting than in the past, still racialized.

Ultimately, their experiences reflect the often complex, sometimes difficult, but ultimately rewarding dynamics at the heart of interracial marriage in today’s world.