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Author: June Carbone and Naomi Cahn

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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.

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