— -- Niche dating websites, such as ChristianMingle.com, OurTime.com and BlackPeopleMeet.com, are helping users weed out their dating pools, but there is a new site that has many questioning how far preference can go until they are considered offensive.
Sam and Jodie Russell are the masterminds behind the two-month-old dating website, WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com. They launched their business with a giant billboard in their hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah -- a region where the population is more than 90 percent white.
"We are not racist at all, without question," Sam Russell said. "Our lifestyle shows it. The things we do. The people we associate with. The way we conduct ourselves each and every day proves it."
The billboard caused such offense that the city made them take it down. Sam Russell said they knew their site was controversial and they expected backlash from it. In fact, they are hoping to turn that public outrage into profit.
The site has been the butt of many jokes from the late night talk show hosts but it also encapsulated the controversy surrounding race and online dating. But Russell said users on their site are not required to check a white racial preference nor are they kicked off for not being white, even though the name would suggest otherwise.
The dating industry is a $2 billion a year industry, according to research company IBISWorld, and about 40 million American visit dating sites every year, according to Match.com. But nowadays, sites are going the extra mile, allowing users to filter date options according to religion, height, body size and race.
But some online daters now say that when it comes to the game of online dating, being successful at finding a match may all come down to the color of your skin. The dating giant OKCupid says its latest trend numbers indicate that daters are less likely to contact black women and also more likely to pass on Asian, black and Latino men.
Paul Brunson, who has been a matchmaker for seven years and runs his own agency, said in his experience, "I can tell you without a doubt that race is the number one characteristic that people are looking for or should I say that there are weeding out."
Russell said the idea came to him while watching ads for niche sites such as BlackPeopleMeet.com.
"I turned to Jodie and said 'why don't we do one for WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com,'" he said. "We kind of laughed for a bit and said, 'oh my gosh, they would crucify us' and I said, 'no really, why not?'"
While people might assume they are trying to be hurtful, Jodie Russell said that's not the case at all.
"We were just capitalizing on that market -- that multi-million dollar market," she said.
"I dated a black girl for quite a while," Sam added. "We actually lived together for a few months -- this is when I was younger. I don't know if we were very serious but that relationship lasted about a year. Jodie and I have a lot of great black friends, so I think it surprises people a little bit."
In fact, they argued that their site promotes conversation about racial equality, not hatred.
"We realize that you don't have to get offended every time you hear the word white or the word black," Sam said.
Recent data shows that 54 percent of millennials are dating outside of their race and 88 percent say they are open to it.
Yet critics worry that the dating site WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com has created a forum for racial prejudice. Sam said when someone used a photo of Adolf Hitler as their profile photo and they took it down off the site immediately.
"We are very cautious on the site, too. We moderate and don't allow any racist comments. Take pictures off. Any racist phrases," Jodie said.
The Russells' son, Holden, a high school senior, is responsible for monitoring their website.
"I've had some nights where I just stay up through the night managing," he said.
He goes through messages one by one accepting and deleting messages that have been flagged as inappropriate.
"There's been a few profiles that people are going to create a fake profile or with black face or Adolf Hitler," he said. "Pretty alarming stuff I've had to take off."
But the Russells say they don't delete comments about the controversial name of their site.
"I like the conversation of the whole thing so I don't have an issue with it at all, and I'm glad I can be a part of it honestly," Holden said.
Emma Tessler, the founder of the matchmaking service The Dating Ring said the majority of her clients have a racial preference and often the preference is to be matched with a white person.
"It's so appalling because the implication of WhereWhitePeopleMeet is that these poor white people are having trouble meeting, which is not true, the world is our ******* oyster," Tessler said. "People still feel like it's okay to say 'I only want to date white people.' I mean, you would never be able to say I only want to hire white people, right?"
It's an issue she says that goes beyond dating sites.
"I think it's a systemic, societal problem," Tessler said. "And I'm not saying that it doesn't mean it's my responsibility to try to fix it. It is, it's my responsibility and it's everyone's responsibility to work to fix this thing."
It's a problem the Russells are now having to address, and they claim people of different races have embraced their site.
"The fact that we are having people of different races come to us and say, 'Thank you for doing this. It's about time' -- I think what it does is, it takes the handcuffs off I think in a small way," Jodie Russell said. "Everything starts somewhere, and if we are the people that start the ball rolling and talking about it so it's not a big deal, I think it's huge."