Recent findings into American race relations don’t seem to paint the brightest picture: racism has been linked to depression, diagnoses of which have risen considerably in recent years, and to gun ownership and opposition to gun control. But a new study of online dating patterns cuts across these trends, suggesting that racial barriers erode slightly when it comes to Internet romance.

The improvements are not all-encompassing. People exhibit the same in-group biases online as they do in real life when it comes to propositioning a stranger of a different race online. But if that stranger propositions you, the study suggests you are more likely to respond to the person, and, moreover, to preemptively contact people of other races later on.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study culled interaction patterns from 126,134 users on the online dating site OkCupid. University of California Sand Diego sociologist Kevin Lewis examined only the first message sent and its reply. All messages were gutted for content, leaving only the sender and receiver’s background and the timestamp of each message. The team used only heterosexual couples — to agree with past research methodology, for sake of comparison — and the site’s five most populous ethnic groups: Black, White, Asian (East Asian), Hispanic/Latino, and Indian (South Asian).

Since the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage, the practice of seeking a lifelong partner outside of one’s own race has increased in prevalence each ensuing decade. According to the 1970 U.S. census, interracially married couples comprised 0.7 percent of the total number of married couples. By 2008, the rate had risen to 3.9 percent.

These figures are promising, yet they still reflect Americans’ overwhelming tendency to wed partners of the same race. The present study corroborates this preference, if only as a passive one.

"Based on a lifetime of experiences in a racist and racially segregated society, people anticipate discrimination on the part of a potential recipient and are largely unwilling to reach out in the first place,” Lewis said. “But if a person of another race expresses interest in them first, their assumptions are falsified—and they are more willing to take a chance on people of that race in the future.”

Lewis called this anticipation “pre-emptive discrimination.” It’s the tendency for people to assume a potential suitor would discriminate against them, so they avoid contacting the suitor altogether. But avoiding this interaction fulfills the prophecy that people of different races don’t contact one another.

As it turns out, the breakdown of race barriers is quickly rectified. In approximately one week, people tended to revert back to their discriminatory selves.

"The new-found optimism is quickly overwhelmed by the status quo, by the normal state of affairs," Lewis explained. "Racial bias in assortative mating is a robust and ubiquitous social phenomenon, and one that is difficult to surmount even with small steps in the right direction. We still have a long way to go."

Online dating works as a helpful proxy in combing through the tangles in assortative mating. Attempts at understanding the way people mate with members of the same ethnic background often fall into the trap of assigning prejudice where, in reality, there may simply be geographical constraints in how people meet. People in more remote areas, especially those heavily populated with members of the same race, necessarily have a harder time interacting with other races. Over time, these in-group mating patterns concretize, and dating outside ethnic circles feels foreign.

Studies into online dating help penetrate these cultural barriers, as an exposure to diversity is literally at someone’s fingertips.

“Racial boundaries are more fragile than we think,” Lewis concluded optimistically, if hesitantly so. He added that people who respond to propositions from other races, but who wouldn’t otherwise reach out themselves, pave the way for cross-cultural blending. The "consequences of this action are self-reinforcing," he said, “and might potentially set in motion a chain of future interracial contact among others.”