September 5, 2011


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 (Thomas Rogers, 9/04/11, Salon)

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.

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?

Posted by at September 5, 2011 7:28 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus