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.

So what are you suggesting, that black women start marrying white guys?

I’m not advocating for black women to marry white men, I’m simply saying it’s time for black women to stop “taking one” for the group. I’m encouraging black women to open themselves up to the possibilities of relationships with men who are not African American — to give less importance to race and more importance to class. This would be good for them, for their children and even benefit other black couples by helping to level the playing field.

With everyone from Psychology Today to on-line dating sites suggesting that non-black men are typically uninterested in black women, is this realistic? Will black women actually find a willing cohort of non-black men to marry?

While there may be an entire set of cultural currents and messages that support these beliefs, this theory is fraught with misconception. Part of this has to do with black women themselves, who may assume non-black men are not interested in them, or only desire them for some perverse or “exotic” reason. Life experience may support these beliefs, but along the way black women miss out on the non-black men who are interested in them. I say that the cost of excluding non-black men can be quite substantial for these women.

At a time when marriage is becoming less popular among all ethnicities, why such a strong focus on wedded bliss?

I’m not necessarily speaking of a physical marriage license, but rather the importance of a stable committed relationship — and there is a serious decline of committed stable relationships in black America today. This has many undesirable outcomes not just for adults, but also for children who are the most vulnerable parties here. Seventy percent of black children today are born to non-married partners; most of these relationships do not last, which means most of these kids grow up with just one parent and this is not an optimal situation for child-rearing.

So where does this leave black men? Seems to me they’re getting all of the blame here.

This book isn’t about demonizing black men, but looking at the consequences of their failures. We are not necessarily exploring the reasons for these failures, but how they affect black families and black relationships. I certainly may not have given enough weight in the book to issues of racism and the criminal justice system or educational policies or employer discrimination, but these topics are for my next book.

Speaking about racism, there is a lot of talk in this book about race, but almost nothing about racism. Why the omission?

I consciously chose to sidestep issues of racism because they tend to be conversation-stoppers. Particularly when it comes to why — or why not — black women don’t date other races, people like to blame racism, identify the “racists,” and this is not helpful. My goal was to consider why people make the decisions they do. This is a deeply detailed and nuanced conversation, which is difficult to conduct when you center on the idea of racism.

Your book almost exclusively focuses on the experiences of African Americans. Why should white people read it?

Sure, the book is rooted in the black community, but the themes — marriage, children, inter-marriage — resonate across group lines. Plus, there are many white people who have black friends or co-workers who see that their lives are different from their own, but aren’t sure how to talk about those differences. They see unmarried black women around them and wonder why they are single. These are topics that black women regularly speak of amongst themselves, but would never discuss in front white people.

With so much talk of unmarried women, fatherless children, economic insecurity, your book feels kind of grim. Where is the hope here for the women you claim to care about?

The hope here is that black women will be able to shape their own lives and not be victims of circumstance. That these women won’t be sidetracked by the lack of black men on one hand and white racism on the other. That they will open their eyes to possibilities they might not have previously considered — and this transcends to women of all races. This is a hopeful book, but not a relentlessly upbeat book because that would have not been true to reality.

What about the Obamas? We have an intact African American family in the White House. Are they a realistic model for the rest of the community?

Interestingly, Michelle Obama’s experience is emblematic of a lot of black women. When they married, she was already a lawyer while Barack was still a student. People speak of Michelle “taking a chance” on Barack and that their story is an example of what awaits when black women shed their elitism and marry a man not — or not yet — on their level. Of course, this is simply not true, particularly considering Barack Obama’s background and life history. The issue here isn’t Michelle, but Barack — he was the “wild card” in this marriage.

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