How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone

by Ralph Richard Banks

Publisher:  Dutton/Plume

Pub Date:  
July, 2011

Format:   Hardcover

During the past half century, African Americans have become the most unmarried people in our nation. More than two out of every three black women are unmarried, and they are more than twice as likely as white women never to marry. The racial gap in marriage extends beyond the poor. Affluent and college educated African Americans are also less likely to marry or stay married than their white counterparts. The instability of African American relationships harms black children and adults, and imperils the growth and stability of the black middle class.

One reason that marriage has declined is that as black women have advanced economically and educationally, men have fallen behind. Each year two black women graduate college for every one black man. Two to one. Every year. The shortage of successful black men not only leaves black women unmarried, it renders them more likely than other women to marry less educated and lower earning men. Half of black wives who are college graduates have husbands who are not. Yet black women rarely marry men of other races. They are less than half as likely as black men, and only a third as likely as Latinos or Asian Americans, to wed across group lines. IS MARRIAGE FOR WHITE PEOPLE? traces the far-reaching consequences of the African American marriage decline. It also explains why black women marry down rather than out. Its provocative conclusion is that black women would benefit both themselves and the black race if they crossed class lines less and race lines more.

As particular as this inquiry may seem, it is also universal. Americans of all races are more unmarried now than ever. And as women surpass men educationally, wives increasingly earn more than their husbands. In illuminating the lives of African Americans, IS MARRIAGE FOR WHITE PEOPLE? thus probes cultural and economic trends that implicate everyone, highlighting the extent to which the experience of black women may become that of all women.

This book both informs and entertains. The culmination of a decade of research by a distinguished Stanford law professor, it melds scholarly theory and data with the poignant stories shared by black women throughout the nation. This unforgettable book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the shifting terrain of intimacy in American society.


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"In his debut (Law/Stanford Law School), Banks explores the marriage gap between African-Americans and whites, concluding that fewer African-Americans marry and stay married due to “the changing conception of marriage, and the changing educational and economic positions of men and women.” Add to this the “numbers imbalance” between the wide array of eligible African-American females and an African-American male population in short supply—an unevenness Banks attributes to incarceration, interracial marriage and a lack of economic opportunities for black men. Banks argues that while many African-American women seek out highly educated African-American men, these same men are statistically more likely to date women outside their own race, prompting the pool of prospective suitors to dwindle further. As a result of this imbalance, many African-American men find little incentive to engage in a monogamous relationship: “Why cash in when you can continue to play?” The author writes that “[b]lack men maintain nonexclusive relationships for the same reason as other men: because they can.” Banks tempers his statistically driven arguments by weaving in intriguing personal interviews. This technique, both quantitative and qualitative in its approach, provides the groundwork for a brave and convincing argument—one that reveals a startling trend in the decline of African-American marriages. A triumphant work that demystifies the intersection between compatibility and color."--Kirkus Reviews

"Banks, a Stanford law professor, examines why black Americans maintain the lowest marriage and highest divorce rates in the nation, focusing most sharply on the high likelihood a black woman will remain single, a product of the scarcity of black men in the marriage market, their number depleted by high incarceration rates. This "man shortage" leaves those who are available in high demand and with less impetus to commit to one woman. In the U.S., wives earn a larger percentage of the household income than ever and are more likely to have completed college than their husbands. This trend is most acute among African-Americans , which coupled with how African-American women outperform their male counterparts contributes to the high African-American divorce rate. Banks suggests that black women should stop being so willing to "marry down" and consider "marrying out"--marrying nonblack men. Such a choice restores equality to black male and female relationships by depriving black men of the power they enjoy as the result of being scarce commodities. Furthermore, Banks argues provocatively, "for black women, interracial marriage doesn't abandon the race, it serves the race." Peppered with interviews and candid opinions about marriage and relationships, this is a surprisingly intimate scholarly work; the sobering topic is tempered by the author's easy-to-read, captivating style."--Publisher's Weekly 

About the Author 
Ralph Richard Banks is the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, where he has taught about marriage, race, discrimination, and inequality since 1998. His writings have appeared in academic journals such as the Stanford Law Review and the Yale Law Journal and in popular publications such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. 

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