I've long believed a succinct modern definition of marriage can be found in America's Declaration of Independence: as "the pursuit of Happiness."
In that sense, then, it's no coincidence that the phrase comes at the end of the document's famous assertion: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." – connecting a time-honored human rite to the conventionally-accepted human right of freedom.
Nowhere, in the American context, has that link between the rite and the right been more apparent than in society's stance toward marriage between blacks and whites. And no more so than today, when intermarriage between Americans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is more common than ever; and same-sex marriage has made historic breakthroughs in acceptance; and the nation's first black president is the child of an interracial marriage.
That's why the finding of a just-released Gallup survey that black Americans and white Americans are approaching a point of unanimous tolerance about black-white intermarriage is so important: Because the fact that 96 percent of blacks and 84 percent of whites express approval of intermarriage – an average of 87 percent – indicates a great deal about America's present and future.
We know about the past of black-white intermarriage in America. Whites, driven by crackpot assertions of racial purity and the "practical" necessities of slavery, banned it by law during the slave and Jim Crow eras. Not until California's Supreme Court struck down that state's law in 1948 – when a total of 24 other states had such laws and state and federal courts routinely dismissed challenges to them – did the racist restriction of the rite begin to lose power.
The Supreme Court's famous 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia invalidated the intermarriage bans in the last 16 backward states. But even so, whites' attitudes toward intermarriage remained mired in the past.
A 1969 Gallup survey found that while more than 1 of every 2 blacks expressed approval of intermarriage, less than 1 in 5 of whites did. By 1983, black approval was at 71 percent; white approval at 38 percent. Not until 1997 did white approval pass the 60 percent mark; and not until 2005, when black approval was at 87 percent, did White approval break 70 percent.
The current valuable Gallup survey, conducted over four weeks from early June to early July, just presents the data. It wasn't designed to explore the reasons behind the rise in tolerance.
But of course doing so is imperative.
One source of the progress is obvious: The landmark immigration act Congress passed in 1965, four months after the Voting Rights Act, produced a huge wave of immigrants of color from Asia, Latin America, and to a lesser extent, black African nations that sharply increased the number of Americans who are people of color.
That first wave of new Americans had by the 1980s married (largely among themselves) and birthed a sizable second-generation – their children – who grew up thoroughly Americanized. In numerical terms, it's the marriage record of that generation and Americans who've married in the last decade that have made intermarriage a common fact of American life.
Now, one in seven American marriages are between people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds – and together white-Hispanic American and white-Asian American marriages account for more than half of them.
The 558,000 married couples in which one spouse is black and the other white make up only about 11 percent of all intermarriages and less than 1 percent of all married couples in America.
Those two facts underscore the central role black-white intermarriage continues to have: as a source of inspiration to the acceptance of intermarriage in a broader sense; and specifically to the fight for same-sex marriage; and, finally, as lighting-rod for the continuing racist sentiment in American society.
The Gallup survey findings are not a recommendation for thinking those attitudes have completely disappeared. The virulent slurs against President Obama's parents and him as their child testify to its continued grip on the diseased minds of some Americans, including some in high places. So does the stunning explosion of racist tweets against the now-famous Cheerios interracial advertisement of late May.
But it's equally important to note that while the racist tweets initially had the element of surprise on their side, the huge outpouring of support for the ad from the decent denizens of the Twitter-verse conveyed the same message as the Gallup survey's data: the overwhelming majority of Americans accept that this human rite is a human right.
("Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is "Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.")