Is marriage for white people?

The last few decades have witnessed a steep decline in African-American unions. An expert explains why he's worried

Published September 4, 2011 3:03PM (EDT)

Over the past century, the institution of marriage has undergone a tremendous transformation in America -- especially when it comes to African-Americans. Over the last half century, marriage rates in the black community have dwindled. Black women are more than three times as likely as white women to remain unmarried for their entire lives, and when they do marry they're more likely than any other group to marry men with lower incomes, and less education, than their own.

Although, at first glance, this trend seems like a testament to the successes of feminism, Ralph Richard Banks, the author of the new book, "Is Marriage for White People?", argues that it represents a disturbing shift in the landscape of African-American intimacy. Banks, a professor of law at Stanford University, uses detailed interviews and extensive statistical research to argue that this gender and racial imbalance has dire implications for both child-rearing and the long-term happiness of African-American women. In the process, he makes provocative claims about both the importance of marriage and the reasons for its decline -- claims that are sure to inflame opinion in a number of circles.

Salon spoke to Banks over the phone about the drug war's role in this trend, the cultural importance of marriage -- and why many feminists are likely to misunderstand his message.

The book was prompted by what you call the "fracturing of black intimacy" in America. What do you mean by that?

African-Americans have become less likely to have enduring, stable, intimate relationships over the last 30 or 40 years. In the book I talk about it in terms of the marriage decline, but we should be clear that marriage decline is shorthand for the decline in stable, committed, intimate relationships.

What kind of numbers are we looking at?

It's been the case since the 1960s. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about poorer African-Americans in the '60s -- you may be familiar with the Moynihan report, where he talked about the so-called breakdown of the family in inner city areas and the increase in single parent families among poor African-Americans. Since that time, the same developments have spread to the middle class. If you look at statistics overall, about 2 out of every 3 black women are unmarried. A minority of black men are married, as well. These figures are most pronounced among the poor, but they actually extend throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. College educated black women are about twice as likely to be unmarried as college educated white women by age 40.

So why is this a problem?

First of all, I should say that it's fine for people to not be married. But one of the things I wanted to investigate with the interviews [in my book] is whether black women actually wanted to be unmarried. A lot of people say that black women simply realized that they don't need to be married, and I found there is some truth in that. Women now have more freedom than ever to live life on their own or as they see fit because they're able to work and bring in an income, so they don't have to depend on men for economic support. The pressures to marry aren't as great and people can imagine not being married. At the same time, it is the case that most black women imagine their life with a partner. This is true for most people. They may not want to marry just anyone. They may not want to marry early. They may not be desperate to marry, but did they envision that they would be 35, unmarried, and childless? No. That wasn't the plan and it's not the life that women want, and black women in particular are not able to realize that desire.

One consequence of this is that the highly educated black women have the lowest rate of fertility of any group in the country, which is to say that there are more childless women among black women with graduate degrees -- lawyers, doctors, engineers and so forth -- than among any other group. That's not because these women started out not wanting children. It's because they want children, but they also want a husband, and if they're not going to get a husband they end up bypassing the children. There are lots of other women, of course, who have children without being married. This is most common among the poor, and this is true for all races, but it's also the case that middle-class black women have children without being married. That's not a good development. When I say that, it sounds more conservative than I want it to, but I think at this point in time we should be able to recognize that marriage is the best invention for rearing children.

A lot of people would consider the notion that happiness and fulfillment is contingent on marriage and childrearing to be offensive and retrograde.

I've talked about this with a lot of academic white feminists at Stanford, and I've heard a lot of them ask, "Why do women need to be married? Why can't they have children on their own? And who am I to impose some moral code on women?" My response is that when I went out to interview people, I thought I was going to find a lot of black women who were so happy they didn't have to be married. But I didn't find that. To the people who say black women are leading the charge in being unmarried and we should applaud them rather than subject them to scrutiny, I would say they're really missing the experience that a lot of black women are having. A less charitable take is that it's doing a disservice to black women to manipulate their experience for the ideological ends of feminism.

If so much of these women's ideas about happiness are tied to marriage and motherhood, doesn't that suggest that our culture is putting too much value on those two things?

It would be ironic to make that characterization because there is so much less pressure now to marry or have children than ever. There was a time long ago when women in particular had no choice but to marry and have children. We're beyond that point now. The overwhelming majority of people do want to have children because they do want to nurture a young person and project themselves into the next generation. I think an even larger number of people want to have a partner. Maybe they don't when they're in college or just after college, but as they get older, most people tend to want to have an ongoing, intimate relationship with someone. In every civilization we know of, there has been a relationship that was something like marriage, so I get a bit impatient when people talk about marriage as though this is a social construction that is oppressing people and we should just cast it off -- because the issue is not formal marriage, the issue is that people want a partner.

One of the reasons you give for the fracturing of intimacy is the extraordinary level of incarceration of black men in the United States. How does that affect marriage rates in the U.S.?

Two factors that are intertwined are the poor educational performance of black boys and the withering of job opportunities for less educated men, both of which have helped create this great increase in incarceration. Uneducated and unemployed men who have no legal means to make money come up against a drug war with harsh, Draconian sentencing schemes. This is not a recipe for strong families. There are more than 2 million people in jail [in the U.S.], and more than 800,000 of them are black men. More than 1 in 10 black men in their 20s and 30s, which is the age people usually marry, are in jail. Lifetime likelihood may be as high as 1 in 4. Going to jail is not going to boost one's economic prospects. Those men are not likely to marry, and that means there are fewer partners for women simply because you have so many men who've been taken out of the population or are just not husband material. We have a skewed sex ratio that distorts the ratios of the people on the outside.

But at the same time African-American women are making more money and being more professionally successful than ever.

Black women earn nearly 95 percent of what black men do, but that understates the progress that black women have made. These studies focus on full-time workers, and a lot of black men aren't working and many more black women are working. One of the statistics that was most striking to me, and I checked it several times because I couldn't believe it, is that nearly twice as many black women as black men graduate from college. This is in a time when the economic value of a college degree is greater than it's been for the past seven decades. So black women are receiving the bulk of the degrees at the same time that the economic premium associated with those degrees is greater than it has been in at least a half century. There's not good data on this, but it's fair to say that among the younger generation, black women have surpassed black men economically.

How could that possibly be a bad thing?

It's a good thing those women are able to enter high-earning professions, but at the same time, we should be realistic about the expectations and the norms with which people enter relationships. One of those norms is that men are still expected to be the breadwinner, so even as it has become more permissible, and even desirable, for wives to work, men don't have the freedom not to work. In couples where women earn the bulk of the income and the man is either unemployed or earns a marginal income, the man is bothered because he feels like he should be the man and is somehow falling down on the job. Less well known, but equally true is that women are not so happy about men not being able to support the family either. The woman might feel she has the option to work, but she also feels that the man should make money too. If he's not, she thinks less of him. There is good statistical evidence to support that whether a woman is working doesn't influence the likelihood of divorce, but whether a man is working does. So, to put it simply, the unemployed husband equals divorce and the unemployed wife does not.

What is more particular for African-Americans is that when you have high earning women and men who earn a lot less, it's because the men are less educated and there is a different professional trajectory. Among black women, there are a lot of black lawyers who are married to auto mechanics or janitors or sanitation workers. Lots of professional black women are married to working class men. I describe those situations as mixed marriages because, although the couple shares a race, they have very different educational and social experiences. They're also probably more likely to have problems as a result. This is a place where the ideology of believing it's OK for woman to be the economically dominant partner has completely blinded them to the actual experiences of large number of black women for whom it is not a great thing to be with a guy who can't relate to your professional experiences. The caveat for all this is that I'm not saying cross-class relationships never work or that women should never earn more. Of course, we all know people who have good relationships that have these characteristics. What I am saying is that the assumption that there are no issues to work out is erroneous.

According to statistics you cite in the book, black men are more likely to marry a white woman than black women are to marry a white man. Why do you think that is?

The puzzle is that black women are the most likely to be unmarried, most likely to marry a less educated and lower earning man, and those relationships are more likely to be troubled, yet black women are the least likely to marry across racial lines. The big question is why, and there are two categories of answers. One is the lack of demand for black women among nonblack men. Or, put another way, black women don't marry men of other races because those men don't want to marry black women. Researchers say this is the case because black women are burdened by unflattering stereotypes, they don't conform to the white standard of beauty, and African-Americans are a low status and undesired group. That's probably the dominant explanation that many people would give you. That is unquestioningly part of the story because all the evidence we have suggests black women are the least sought after partners by nonblack men. It's also the case that for a variety of reasons black women don't want to marry nonblack men.

Why not?

One woman I spoke to started dating a white guy, and when she considered what her Black Nationalist family who celebrates Kwanzaa would think, she didn't think it would work. Another woman, when reflecting on her relationship with a white guy said she just couldn't imagine bringing him home to meet her family in Detroit. A lot of black parents who were raised during the Jim Crow era don't want their children to marry white people because of the very bad experiences they had. There are many examples of white families threatening to disown their children for having married or taken up with a black woman. Another concern is that black women feel they owe it to the black race to marry a black man and have a black family that is strong and does the race proud. Many college educated black women have cousins, fathers and brothers who have been to jail or unemployed. They've seen this struggle and feel like they want to help and be part of the solution rather than be successful on their own. It's kind of like the person who grows up the inner city, gains success and then moves away. These women don't want to move away because they want to lift as they climb. Otherwise their success might seem empty, or they might feel guilty for having somehow made it while so many others did not. Guilt and solidarity is strong.

So what is your solution?

I'm not trying to tell black women what they should do, but I want to unsettle the expectation in the black community that the right thing for a black woman to do is to find a black man and form a strong black family. Relationships form within a market and part of the reason why economically successful black men are less likely than their white counterparts to marry is that the numbers are so much in their favor. If men are in short supply and women are abundant, then men have more power in the relationship and some men will enjoy that power and become less inclined to marry. The idea is that if black women can improve their market power by expanding their options in an integrated market, then black men would treat them better. This would be a good thing and it would lead to better relationships among African-Americans. It's also the case that some of those black women who exit the segregated market would meet men of other races and they would probably have better relationships with men of other races than they would with black men. The reason for that is they would be able to find men who are their educational and socioeconomic peers rather than choosing among men who are much less educated and lower earning than they are.

While reading your book, I kept on thinking: So many people have healthy, if not better, relationships outside of marriage -- so why care about the institution in the first place? To me, the fact that so many men can't handle women outearning them points to a crisis of masculinity more than anything else.

When I teach family law, we spend a lot of time on the question of: If we didn't have the institution of marriage, would we need to create it? What would life be like without that? When you ask people on the street if they think marriage is oppressive and has been a tool to consolidate male control over women and maintaining property relationships, those ideas don't connect with regular people at all. If you talk to mainstream gay leaders about destroying gay marriage, you have no constituency for that among gay rights advocates. Ten or twenty years ago, there was a constituency for that argument.

That's funny, because I'm actually part of that gay constituency.

There's a lot to the critique of marriage as an institution, but in the book, I'm not critiquing what people want. When a black woman tells me she thought by the time she was 39 she'd be married with children, I don't begin to query her about why she wants to be married and whether marriage is necessary. I put myself where they are, and that's a choice I made. In some ways it's a matter of shorthand. It is the case that for most couples in the U.S., a serious, committed, monogamous relationship is going to be a marital one. Most cohabitating relationships are not long term. People either break up or get married. Maybe that will change 10 years from now, but right now in the U.S., that's where we stand.

On the crisis of masculinity, part of my point is that there is continuity between the experiences of African-Americans and others. If you have white men who are unemployed and their wives are professionals and the husband is dependent on the wife, men are uncomfortable with that. There are also women who are uncomfortable with that, which I find more interesting. Because as liberated as women have become and as free as they are to work, in a fundamental sense, they still expect the man to earn money. They want him to help around the house, but they also want him to earn money. My choice here is not to critique people's norms, expectations, or values, but instead to take for granted that in our society people do still have gendered expectations of men and women. If I were creating a society, I might get rid of those, but I'm taking people as they are rather than remaking them in the way I think they should be.

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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