Book Review: Banks’s Is Marriage for White People? How African American Marriage Decline Affects Everone

Richard Banks,Is Marriage for White People? How African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone (Dutton 2011).

A half century ago, high rates of marriage were close to universal.  The one notable exception – and the subject of alarm in a much vilified report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965 – involved lower class African-Americans, whose divorce rates were high and non-marital birth rates were rising.  Today, marriage has emerged as a marker of class for the country as a whole.   For the first time ever, fewer than half of all households consist of married couples.  Moreover, just like access to health care, stable employment, and higher education, access to marriage has become a class-based affair.  According to the National Marriage Project, the likelihood of marrying, staying married and raising children within marriage correlates strongly with education.   Compared to twenty years ago, the likelihood that a fourteen-year old girl will be in a family with both parents has risen for the children of college graduates and fallen substantially for everyone else.  In the midst of cries of alarms about family decay, marital stability has increased for college graduates with declining divorce rates and non-marital birth rates that have stayed below ten percent.  As in 1965, however, the notable exception to the rosy picture for family stability, at least for the elite, comes from African-Americans.   While the white   non-marital birth rate for college graduates has stayed at 2%; for African-American  college graduates, the numbers are rising and now approach the 25% level that caused such alarm at the time of the Moynihan report.  National Marriage Project, fig. S.2, p. 56.

Stanford Law Professor Richard Banks, in a book that has already triggered fireworks, courageously addresses the issue.   In Is Marriage for White People?  How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone, he points out the enormous disparity between the marriage rates of black men and black women and the fact that the issue is no longer one limited to the black underclass.  While marriage has effectively disappeared from the poorest communities (the non-marital birth rates for black high school dropouts is 96%), Banks’ concern is successful African-American women.  Their marriage rates have been dropping, and their dissatisfaction with the behavior of black men is the subject of plays, movies and Banks’ book.  Banks’ explanation is straightforward: black women have been so disproportionately successful that they outnumber the men.  So, too, is his solution.  He writes the book to argue that the only realistic choice for African-American women is to marry outside the race and as a prominent African-American male, he is effectively giving them permission.

While Banks does an exceptional job describing the plight of the most talented African-American women (the book has good stories in addition to its good statistics), he punts on a number of issues.  He treats the behavior of the men as a consequence of the numbers game and, rather than exhort black men to do better by their women, he addresses the book to the women – give up, if you can, on racial exclusivity and the men, facing a more competitive market, will have to come around.  He also does not question the importance of marriage.  Some would celebrate the freedom to create a variety of family relationships and associate higher rates of marriage with male dominance.  On this issue, Banks gets a pass.  He does not take on the larger issue of family organization.  Instead, he addresses the pain of well-educated African-American women who want a committed partner in their lives and are frustrated in their inability to find one.

The most intriguing issue underlying Banks’ book, however, may be its implications for the country as a whole.  Is the experience of the African-American middle class, like the experience of poorer African-Americans a generation earlier, likely to be a bellwether for the country as a whole?  If so, is marriage a viable institution for anyone?

Banks details the gender imbalance in the black community that underlies the marriage market.  Women’s accomplishments exceed the men’s at every level. In college, there are three women for every two men (p. 38).  On the stage at graduation, the gap grows, with twice as many African-American women earning bachelor’s degrees as do the men.  In graduate school, it widens further with the women outnumbering the men by more than two to one.  (Law school has slightly better rates: in 2008, 1,109 black men graduated compared to 1,893 black women (p. 39).)  The relatively small number of men who “make it” have a large number of women from which to choose; the mismatch is exacerbated by the fact that the men are much more likely than the women to marry outside of their race (pp. 33-34).

Consider how far the logic in this book extends out — to either the African-American working class that has fallen further behind or to other races.  After all, the marriage plight of the successful – the brilliant, well-educated, disciplined, prosperous and lucky women in the African-American middle class – comes in part from the fact that they are not in the same marriage pool as the simply ordinary.  Banks sympathetically describes the difficulties in making a relationship work between a female lawyer and a male chef or construction worker, but he does not examine the growing economic inequality that has recreated class as a much more difficult boundary to cross.  International studies demonstrate that growing societal inequality tends to produce high rates of chronic unemployment, imprisonment, substance abuse and mental illness that disproportionately affect less skilled men, and effectively write off a large percentage of the men as unmarriageable.

The result is affecting the role of marriage in the country as whole.  Nationally, women of all races graduate from high school and college at higher rates than the men.  The sole remaining bastions of male predominance are the high end of the income ladder, and the more lucrative graduate and professional fields – and these elites are the only group in society for whom marriage remains the dominant form of family organization.  Banks devotes his attention to the group on the losing end of the marriage market best able to take care of itself – a successful group of women with good jobs, decent incomes, and a high degree of self-sufficiency – presumably because this is the one group for which he has a solution.

For those without college degrees of every race, male wage levels, employment opportunities, and stability have fallen while they have risen for women.  The African-American poor have never recovered from the loss of inner city jobs nor have they benefitted economically from the civil rights revolution that opened doors for highly skilled professionals.  While the mismatch between men and women produces heartache for middle class African-American women, the much greater gender imbalance in poor communities reinforces class lines and reduces the life chances of children born to everyone else.

Banks’ solution – encourage successful African-women to marry outside the race – may succeed in increasing the women’s marriage prospects.  And if it does, it may prompt better behavior from African-American men.  But it can do nothing to address the ultimate problem – a society that treats a high percentage of all men as disposable.  The result reduces the role of marriage in society as a whole and to the extent that it also reduces the resources available to the next generation, it impoverishes us all.

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June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School.  They are the co-authors of Red Families v. Blue Families:  Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford 2010).

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7 Responses

  1. Matthew Lister says:

    A very interesting review. Is there discussion of rates of use of birth control and abortion for various groups? I would think that you couldn’t get a complete picture about patterns of non-marital births without looking at those issues.

  2. June Carbone says:

    The book has some discussion of birth control and more on abortion. In particular, Banks notes that the stigma against non-marital births has remained quite high for middle class African-American women (although that is beginning to change), and that a high percent of all African-American pregnancies end in abortion. Our research indicates that for the middle class generally, high rates of birth control usage are the norm and abortion is important to holding the line on single parent pregnancies.

  3. Matthew Lister says:

    Thanks for the extra information, June- that’s interesting and useful.

  4. androcles says:

    “do better by their women”

    there may be a better way to put that

  5. It’s an interesting conundrum with 42% of black men and 42% of Black women never marrying. Taking the problem out of it’s racial context and making it everyone’s problem is socially prescient.

    As a Black 40-something unmarried Black woman, my self-serving question is whether interracial marriage really will change attitudes and behavior of Black men in the long term? As crossing the color line may generate even more discord between single Black men and women in the short term.

  6. MeatSac says:

    As the review suggests, a book like this begs the underlying question of *why* we appear as a society to have lost several generations of men, of all color. We may decry all we want the apparent general loss of male interest in preparing, leading, succeeding and accomplishing, but until we come to grips with the fact that we have disenfranchised entire generations of boys and men, the pattern will continue and increase in despair. Perhaps the response will be that men *deserve* to be repressed, in order to equalize hundreds (thousands?) of years of patriarchal domination. However, the problem with that premise is that we men are important to this society, important as fathers and husbands, and until that importance is re-established and respected, it will not be regained.
    I never cease to be amazed at how men and fathers are portrayed constantly in popular media; I am Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin, a pathetically flawed, brainless oaf who, without my practical, ultimately wise, intelligent, caring and sensitive wife, I would be a complete psychopath. If it is not some man dipping his sons feet in white goo in order to come up with “socks that fit” (and being told by the wife and mother figure that “that is stupid”), then it is the Lifetime channel showing twenty-fours hours of movies with some theme that follows these general principles, “Mommy, may I sleep with the serial killer (who is male)”, or “there is a stalker outside my window (who is male)”, or “he was really nice when we married, but now he is Satan, and beats on me” – do you see the theme here? “Pop culture” takes a hit anytime one wishes to point out societal failure, but if you readily accept that fashion magazines give young women poor self image, then you cannot reject the popular images of how we portray fathers and men giving our young men painful lessons, either. If there are male role models, they are 5 foot tall androgynous pop singers, violent and reckless rap singers, steroidal monsters, or ultra-conservative apocalyptics praying for relief from the poor job market. I can’t say that I have the definition of what it is to be a man, as I am still trying to figure it out myself, but every fiber in my rather more than 5ft frame tells me that it is not the gentle androgynous character.
    We fail to support and show strong male role models of either color and ultimately wonder why we have raised boys that discredit themselves, their future, and respect for women? I am for gender equality, and I am raising two young girls. I want them to be strong, smart, and self sufficient (so no princesses for these two – no indoctrination that they need a man to save them), but I want them to know that not all men hit or molest or murder, and to value and respect the differences that make us unique, and more importantly, valuable – to each other and our society as a whole, regardless of color.

  7. Gwen Kelly says:

    I truly applaud the attention Professor Banks’ book will generate. This is a subject that has been long overlooked and as we hope will be seen, needs to be discussed. That being said, I would suggest that Banks’ proposition of telling African-American women to look for marriage partners outside of their race is in effect, wrong. No matter what the attainment of higher education and economic status of Black women, really, Banks wants us to believe upwardly mobile, non-black,middle and upper middle-class men are now going to look at black women as serious marriage partners when black women widen their selection pool? The discussion that Banks’ books skirts and largely avoids is the impact of race. And at the end of the day, as Dr. Cornel West so aptly says…race matters. And so it will be here too when non-black men look at who they select as potential marriage partners. They ain’t looking to the sistahs in any larger measure than they ever have in the past or ever will in the future.