Few books will get as many raised eyebrows from your fellow straphangers as reading Is Marriage for White People? on the subway will. The title alone draws you in, though author Ralph Richard Banks, a Stanford Law professor in town last week for an event at Cardozo Law School, admits that the original name was “totally boring” when he began writing the book as an academic work about a decade ago.
Banks lays down a hard reality: Black people simply are marrying each other a whole lot less than white people are. Regardless of income, class, and education, African-American marriage rates have been plummeting for decades. Black women, three times more likely than white women to never marry, are the least-married demographic in the nation.
Writing about this honestly has meant airing some dirty laundry for Banks, which has gotten both positive and queasy reactions from readers.
“A professional black woman came up to me at a recent event,” he says, “and sighed, and said, ‘Thank you for saying this out loud.'” She was referring to some hard truths: that there’s a dearth of black men available in the general population because of high rates of incarceration; that on college campuses, there are two black women for every black man; and that because black men are so much more likely to intermarry racially, many black women end up alone.
But not everyone is happy to have these things said aloud. Banks has heard from friends and family members who wish he hadn’t gone public for white people to see. Banks writes about how a common response to the man shortage is “man sharing” and cites studies that show that “almost two out of every five [black] men had simultaneous relationships with more than one sex partner,” and “black married men are twice as likely as white married men to have a relationship with another woman.”
Banks also debunks several common myths. He explains why, contrary to popular perception, “black women, when confronted with an unplanned pregnancy, are less likely than any other groups of single women” to abort. He shows how black people aren’t inherently averse to the idea of marriage; they just approach it under different circumstances. He shows how the role of race in news stories about online dating preferences is completely overblown. And he also calls out the idea that African tribal culture has something to do with low rates of contemporary black American marriage—following decades of much higher rates—for the nonsense that it is.
Banks also points out that other Americans might soon follow the same marriage trends. For example, though the gender imbalance on college campuses is 2:1 for black women to black men, it’s now 60 percent female, 40 percent male for everyone. Female college graduates of all races are now seeing their male peers heavily in demand, allowing the boys to dictate the terms of their relationships.
Educated black women have a head start in navigating this. In fact, how common the “marry down” pattern is for them might be the most unexpected thing Banks says he learned in writing the book. As they “devised a new script” for dealing with women being the primary breadwinners, black couples have faced pressures their parents’ generation (and white America) have not. (He explains this best by showing how in recent years, a man who earned money would be expected to share it with his family, and if he kept his wife from having access to the checkbook, he’d be considered a sexist pig. But when a woman “marries down,” she often sees her earnings primarily as hers and not the province of her less-educated, less-earning husband.)
As women of all races dominate college campuses, and as the “mancession” disproportionately affects men across racial lines in its destruction of typically male-dominated occupations, it’s something they, too, will have to deal with.
As in recent battles over same-sex marriage, Banks argues that the fight is largely about the word “marriage” itself and the (unrealistically high) ideals Americans put into it. Teaching family law at Stanford, he’s involved with the history of California’s Proposition 8. Banks argues that domestic partnerships there were nearly identical to marriage. Still, he says, “there’s something about that word” that speaks to how much Americans invest in it.
Is “marriage” a word reserved only for white people? Hardly. Black people, especially women, put a lot of value into thinking about marriage, idolizing it, and waiting for the right person to engage in it with—even if they ultimately choose to engage in it less often.
For a full Q&A with author Ralph Richard Banks, read Ralph Richard Banks Asks if Marriage is For White People Only