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Is Marriage For White People?
(NY Times Review)
Ralph Richard Banks
The unmarried black woman is a figure of cultural fascination these days. Cable news specials, popular books by Steve Harvey and T. D. Jakes, the films of Tyler Perry, and newspaper articles about single black women and their children born out of wedlock send waves of dismay through the American public. The explanations offered for this phenomenon tend to be of two sorts: prurient accounts of black male promiscuity and irresponsibility, or caricatures of aggressive and unreasonable black women. It is rare for the popular media to include careful social or historical analyses. Rather, they are often purveyors of a moral panic presented without root or reason.
Upon reading the title “Is Marriage for White People?” I assumed the book, by the Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks, would follow in this trend. But I was wrong. Banks doesn’t offer a jeremiad about the decline of black family values in the way of so many others who do little more than regurgitate Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which described black family structure as “a tangle of pathology.” Refreshingly, Banks offers a well-researched and probing discussion of why marriage rates are so low among black Americans.
In clean and efficient prose, Banks presents a lucid picture of romantic life in black America. Moreover, he disposes of the mythology that the failure to marry is primarily an underclass phenomenon, turning his attention especially to the lives of middle-class black women. He has set out to answer the question: Why are black women “half as likely as white women to be married, and more than three times as likely as white women never to marry”?
Banks conducted some 100 interviews with African-Americans about their experiences with marriage and dating, and his findings guided him as he sought additional answers in the social science research. He correctly notes that while divorce is common in the United States, and while out-of-wedlock birth is increasing across demographic groups, marriage remains a social ideal and status marker in American culture. He writes that African-Americans value marriage as much as other groups, despite the statistics, but that the impediments to marriage for black people are daunting and multifaceted.
Black women significantly outperform black men in high school and college. As a result, the black middle class is disproportionately female and the black poor are disproportionately male, and the gap is widening. Extraordinary rates of incarceration for black men, and the long-term effects of a prison record on employment, exacerbate this situation. Banks refers to studies indicating that “in evaluating potential mates, economic stability still matters more for African-Americans than for other groups.” Yet they may never find that security, and therefore never marry.
Moreover, the benefits of marriage don’t accrue as readily for African-Americans as for other groups precisely because of their economic instability. Marriage simply isn’t an essential component for their well-being. For example, Banks cites data showing that black children with married parents fare no better academically or economically in the long run than their born-out-of-wedlock counterparts. Nor can we assume, Banks says, that children born to unmarried parents do not have a paternal presence, or that children born to married parents are living in a stable household. Case in point: The rates of divorce and reported dissatisfaction among married black couples are higher than those among married white couples.
Banks handily extinguishes the myth that black women are too picky when seeking a mate. In fact, he notes that black women are more likely than women of other groups to marry men who are less successful than they are, educationally or occupationally. With the rich detail afforded by extensive interviews, Banks sheds light on the powerful specter of stereotypes about welfare queens and Jezebels, and plumbs the emotional lives of black women, describing the loneliness they feel when marriage prospects are dim. He also explains that because economically successful black men are relatively rare, their power on the dating market is heightened; affluent black men can “play the field” indefinitely, and this too has a negative impact on marriage.
This leads to my primary criticism of the book. The prescriptive measure Banks concludes with is: Black women should be more open to marrying outside their race. Banks argues that to their detriment, black women will marry “down” but not “out” — they’re more likely to marry less-educated and lower-earning black men than to marry interracially. He treats black women’s resistance to interracial dating with great sensitivity (though he pays too little attention to the history of nonconsensual and exploitative sexual relationships between white men and black women that may be the root of many black women’s reluctance). And as a statement of values, Banks’s position is laudable: people should be open to forming relationships across ethnic lines in a heterogeneous society; after all, romantic love is serendipitous — it doesn’t neatly comport with expectations. But given that Banks identifies a devastating social reality for black men as the foremost explanation for low African-American marriage rates, you might expect a logical first-order solution to address that reality. Attention to the abundant research on the discrimination faced by black men in schools, in the workplace and in the realm of law enforcement would have been useful here. A solution to the marriage question rooted in dating preferences treats the problem as an individual one rather than as societal or structural, which seems odd in a book about such a fundamental social institution.
Banks also fails to delve into issues confronting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender black people in romantic relationships. This is a notable absence in a work about sexual unions. Although Banks is attentive to the economic diversity of blacks, he doesn’t attend much to other forms of diversity. On that same point, a look at marriage across black ethnicities would have been informative. The population of first- and second-generation black immigrants has risen over the past four decades. Given the distinct histories and relatively higher educational outcomes of many of these groups, it would be interesting to compare their marriage rates with those of other blacks.
Despite these shortcomings, “Is Marriage for White People?” is an important book, and not only for those interested in African-American life. Banks effectively argues that black Americans are leading a trend of relationship instability that is growing rapidly in nonblack communities as well. He distinguishes between marriage and healthy relationships, noting the prevalence of stable, long-term unmarried relationships in Europe (where the marriage decline is not considered a crisis, he writes). Hence, his book is not a romanticization of the institution of marriage, but an alarm bell warning of the failure of American partnerships. He alerts us to the consequences for families, and I would add that the alarm rings beyond marriage, to a broader social collapse that includes distrust of neighbors, weakened social networks and community institutions, evictions, foreclosures, diminished opportunity, hostility toward those we deem different and skepticism toward enduring human connection. In short, the ties that bind need tightening.
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