Ralph Richard Banks borrows the provocative title of his book from an anecdote relayed by an African-American journalist who taught a class to a roomful of black sixth graders in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. When the journalist offered to invite married couples to speak to the students about raising children, one boy sneered, “Marriage is for white people.”
The black family has long been a topic of public discussion. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in what became known as the Moynihan Report, famously described single-parent (and overwhelmingly female- headed) black families as a “tangle of pathology.” Today, black women are peculiarly unpartnered—as many as three out of 10 may never marry. With movies such as Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) and Why Did I Get Married? (2007), black filmmaker Tyler Perry has built a fortune on the subject of black female loneliness and the precarious nature of relationships between black women and black men.
The decline in the marriage rate among poor African Americans has gained most of the attention, given that it’s especially pronounced, but the scarcity of married couples is increasingly apparent among affluent blacks as well. In this accessible and comprehensive study, Banks focuses on the plight of middle-class black women, who marry at higher rates than poor black women but are still twice as likely as white women never to wed.
An implicit theme of Banks’s book is the universality of black experience. He suggests, as others have, that perhaps the institution no longer suits the needs of men and women today, who don’t feel compelled to marry in order to gain economic or romantic partners. And divorce and single-parent child rearing have become both more socially acceptable and financially feasible. Today, 40 to 50 percent of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. While the marriage rates of blacks have dropped off more steeply than those of whites, Banks notes that in regard to marriage and child-rearing trends, “white follows black.” The proportion of white children born to single mothers is now equal to the percentage of black children born to single mothers 50 years ago.
Banks proposes that both blacks and whites have set such high standards for mates and for marriage itself that they cannot possibly be met. Still, African Americans, as Banks observes, “are the most unmarried people in the nation.” And divorce rates among blacks are double those of whites. Why?
Is it because blacks have yet to overcome the effects of slavery, which made lasting unions impossible? (This proposal is partially undermined by the fact that the marriage gap developed a century after abolition.) Is it because, by some estimates, more than a quarter of all black men in the United States will spend time behind bars during their lives? Is it because more than one out of five black men marry outside the race—a fact that black women deeply resent? Is it because black women greatly outdistance black men in the educational and professional realms and can’t find a partner whom they regard as a peer? Or is it because black men have so many options in the romance “market” that they resist being forced to commit to one?
Banks concedes that his research provides only partial answers, and that his findings are not drawn from firsthand experience. In his acknowledgments, he indicates that he is happily married. He confesses that he found this book difficult to write for the same reason that—I must confess—I found it difficult to review: It exposes “some uncomfortable truths about relationships between black men and women.”
Despite its disheartening revelations, Is Marriage for White People? is compelling reading. The book is not the standard academic text that Banks, a Stanford law professor, set out to write. His arguments are buttressed by sound reasoning and incontestable statistics, but the book is not overrun with numbers. As Banks conducted interviews to supplement his research, the project grew into an effort to illuminate the experiences of the black middle class, which have long been obscured as attention “oscillates from the black poor to everyone else.” His selection of interviewees consists mainly of black women within his peer group: lawyers with Ivy League degrees.
American filmmaker Tyler Perry has built a fortune on the subject of black female loneliness and the precarious nature of relationships between black women and black men.
However limited his pool of participants, the stories these women entrusted to Banks put human faces on the distressing conundrums he explores. For example, he opens the book with a portrait of Audrey Jones, a 39-year-old multilingual business consultant who has been exceptionally successful. She is also unmarried, though she doesn’t want to be. A woman with boundless professional opportunities who is also a “good catch,” in Banks’s estimation, is facing a lifetime of loneliness, according to statistics. “This may not be the life that I had hoped for,” Jones says, “but this is the life I have to live.”
What to do about the black family is a dilemma that has preoccupied sociologists, psychologists, journalists, screenwriters, novelists, and ordinary people for decades. Few have unreservedly advocated the refreshing solution Banks offers: interracial marriage. While black men have long felt free to choose white mates, he notes, black women are “more segregated in the intimate marketplace than any group in American society.” They view interracial relationships as too complicated and see partnering with black men as an expression of a larger commitment to the race itself; often, black women aren’t as attracted to men of other races as they are to black men. But Banks urges them to overcome these reservations.
He ends his book with an uplifting story about Joe, who is white, and Teresa, who is black. They are complete opposites in personality and background, but have a joyful and mutually supportive relationship. Banks uses their story to illustrate the core of his argument, which is that unions between black women and white men actually benefit intra-racial relationships, because such relationships shift the “power, ever so slightly, in favor of black women” as the gender imbalance among single blacks becomes less severe. “If more black women married nonblack men,” Banks muses, “more black men and women might marry each other.” His controversial conclusion may rankle, amuse, or vindicate, but it provides a new chapter to an old story about the distressing state of black marriage.
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Emily Bernard is an associate professor in the Department of English and the ALANA (African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American) U.S. Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Vermont. She is the editor of Some of My Best Friends: Writers on Interracial Friendships (2004). Her book A Portrait in Black and White: Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance will be published next year.
Reviewed: Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone by Ralph Richard Banks, Dutton, 289 pp.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Britt-Marie Sohlström