Robert and Lerato Barney, of Mays Landing, feel the stares when they go out ... curious looks, sometimes appraising, but nothing compared with what they went through when they lived in South Africa.

"In South Africa it was blatant and all the time," said Robert Barney, 34, an assistant professor of social work at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. "What we noticed (here) was a little more covert," he said.

Robert, Canadian by birth, is white; his wife, a South African by birth, is black.

More than 46 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia struck down Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws, setting in motion the elimination of more than a dozen states' prohibitions against blacks marrying whites, interracial unions are increasing.

In the past three decades, the number of interracial marriages has grown from 651,000 in 1981 to more than 2.4 million, according to U.S Census data. Seven race groups are used in counting interracial marriages; the white and African American category has grown from 167,000 to 558,000 since 1981.

Clement Alexander Price, PhD., director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University, Newark, attributes the increase not just to changes in laws and perceptions but also the rise of the Civil Rights movement.

"(Interracial marriage) is no longer illegal and, although it is not necessarily the most popular thing in our society, it seems that blacks and whites, Asians and whites, browns and whites are all practicing miscegenation," Price said.

Signs of progress are everywhere, including in pop culture. A recent example could be seen in a Cheerios commercial that aired Super Bowl Sunday. The advertisement featured a family - black father, white mother, and daughter of mixed raced. In the ad, the father tells the little girl she would soon have a baby brother.

"We were watching the Super Bowl, and that commercial came on, and I almost fell off the couch. There are very few interracial families depicted on television. It has become an issue du jour, and for people that haven't read the memo it is 'race wasn't what we once thought it was, and society is becoming more interracialized,'" Price said.

Still, reality has a way to go before it catches up to the idyllic world of advertising.

Jessica Smith, 30, of the Waretown section of Ocean Township in Ocean County, has a biracial daughter, 2-year-old Abby. Her father is black and Puerto Rican. Jessica Smith's older daughter Ashley, 10, has a white father and is quite a contrast to her younger sister.

When people see Smith in public with her daughters they seem shocked at how different they look, she said.

"I have Ashley, who is so pale with freckles, and then I have this biracial little girl, Abby. Biracial children are gorgeous; I think it's the best combination. They get the best of both worlds," she said.

Jessica Smith, who has blond hair and blue eyes, said she was raised not to see color as an issue.

"When I go out with Abby's father, I am proud to be with him. Seven years later we're still together, and we've been through a lot. I think it's a shame that people still look at color and judge. I don't see black. I see beautiful skin," she said.

For the Barneys, the muted reaction to their relationship here was a relief compared with South Africa, where they would receive nasty comments, stares and even a few death threats. But it did not hide that people were still making judgments.

"It would come up in conversation and people would allude to some kind of prejudice they have. There's also the assumption as a mixed race couple that perhaps you're not together. A host at a restaurant will say, 'Can I help you?' and overlook my wife, thinking that we are not together," Robert said

"Being in a mixed race relationship as a man has really exposed me to see that there is a lot of racism still alive in this country," he said.

Agreed, said Price, who nevertheless remains optimistic, noting that interracial unions took place despite the best attempts of governments dating back to the 18th century to prohibit them.

"In the 18th and 19th century this was a part of the experience of freed and enslaved blacks and free whites. There was always evidence of miscegenation. Some of it scorned, much of it illegal, but in the face of all of that it, occurred," said Price, a black man who is married to a white woman.

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