Is Marriage for White People?

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Even with an African American couple in the White House, the fate of the black family in America has never been so precarious. That’s the message behind Is Marriage for White People?, a new book by Stanford Law professor Ralph Richard Banks.

Researched and written over the past 10 years, Banks’ book explores the unpleasant — and often unspoken — contributors to and consequences of declining marriage rates among African Americans. With 70% of all black children now born to unwed mothers, the consequences have never been clearer. As for the solutions, Banks provocatively suggests that black women begin looking beyond their own race for marriage material and potential fathers of their children.

Is Marriage for White People?, which comes out on Sept. 1, examines the little-explored intersections of race, gender and class among African Americans, but the same issues — regarding marriage, inter-marriage, children — exist among most groups in the U.S. spoke with Banks about “marrying down” and why filmmaker Tyler Perry has it all wrong. Your book focuses specifically on marriage patterns within the black “middle class” of educated professionals. Why focus your research so narrowly?

Banks: Because this is a demographic that has traditionally been overlooked by demographers. When scholars study marriage, they usually focus on white people, yet when they focus on African Americans, they usually study the lower classes. There is very little serious data on other segments. Plus, the black middle-class is the community I am a part of — and I’ve personally witnessed the decline of marriage among African Americans.

So what did you find out? How is marriage faring among the black middle class?

Not well — particularly for black women. Typically, the more educated the woman, the more likely she is to marry. But a college-educated black woman is no more likely to have a husband than a poor Caucasian woman with barely a high school diploma. When it comes to forming a family, black women are not reaping the benefits of advanced education — nor are they passing those benefits onto the next generation.

There are plenty of black men out there, so what’s keeping these women single?

Part of the answer lies in the gender imbalance within the black community — where two African American women graduate from college for every one African American male. Despite this imbalance, there is still enormous social pressure on black women to only marry black men — to “sustain” the race and build strong black families. And this means marrying black men even if they are less educated or earn less money. In short, no matter the personal cost, black woman are encourage to marry “down” before they marry “out.”

“Down before out” — ouch! That sounds like a pretty harsh indictment.

Well, this has become almost a consensus view (within the black community). Authors like Steve Harvey and Hill Harper and particularly filmmaker Tyler Perry promote this notion that black women who lack good relationships are victims of their own elitism and snobbery. That they should open their eyes to the virtues of working-class black men and focus on their long-term potential. These kinds of messages tell a black female lawyer, for instance, that she should be enthusiastic about dating a carpenter or a plumber — and if she’s not, then she is the one with the problem. It pressures black women to give up certain kinds of life experiences (for the sake of a man) when white women are taught to cultivate them. This is simply bad advice that can lead these women into disastrous relationships.

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