Ralph Richard Banks is the author of the new book Is Marriage for White People? While Banks, a Stanford Law professor, was in town for an event at Cardozo Law School, we met him for lunch in the West Village to talk about why black folks marry so much less often than whites, why black women are the least married demographic, and why white dudes seem to be more accepting of a black woman wearing natural hair than black men.
(And, even though the book is largely about heterosexuals, we squeezed in some queer questions on Prop 8 and Tyler Perry.)
You write in the book candidly about there still being a big hang up about interracial marriage, especially about black women marrying white men. Why is this so, in 2011?
It’s largely generational. I think, if you go back about 10 years, interracial marriage was a bigger thing than it is now. And in 10 years, it won’t be an issue at all. If you look at people who are in their forties or fifties or sixties, there are certain associations or attitudes they may have about it. But if you look at people in their twenties, they’re like, “What’s the big deal?”
It’s the same way with same-sex marriage.
Yeah. My son is 13, and when we had the Prop. 8 debate in California, he and his friends were 11. Their attitude was, “What are people so upset about?” These kids are so in favor of same-sex marriage, they couldn’t imagine what the argument was about. They were just like, “What’s your problem?” And I think that people are soon going to be that way about interracial relationships. I think that will happen in the next decade. But we’re not there yet.
What was the most unexpected thing you discovered in writing the book?
How big the “marry-down” phenomenon is [of black women marrying men who earn less than they do].
How does that affect the low rate of black marriage?
There are basically three parts. The pivotal social change is that [black] women have moved ahead and men have moved behind, and this leads to the marriage decline and to the “marry-down” phenomenon. The lack of men [due to incarceration] is the underlying issue. The men are falling behind, and that leaves more women single, and those who are left are marrying men who are not as successful as they are.
The question is, why aren’t more black women “marrying out,” given interracial marriage is increasing so much? In 1960, in the 1950s, black women were about as likely as black men to marry across color lines.
The men falling behind explains the low rates of black marriage. There is an appeal, over time, for racial solidarity — that black women should stand by the black man and support the black family. Part of this has a pull on women, and it’s because they know the men aren’t doing well. They’re literally their brothers, their cousins, the guys they went to school with. It’s almost like, “The price you pay for your own success is to bring them along.”
So in the absence of that context, it would be easy for black women to cross racial lines, because crossing racial lines wouldn’t have the same sense of leaving those men behind who need you — neglecting them, abandoning them.
The message black women are given is that you’ve got to help a brother out. That’s the way it’s portrayed in the media and in Tyler Perry movies. That’s a constant theme in his movies, and he’s the most popular black filmmaker and the most popular filmmaker, period, in the country right now. In all of his movies, you have this woman who is highfalutin and then realizes she’s too elitist, and then she finds this construction worker, or a bus driver, or a mechanic —
And he’s always very well-oiled and well-photographed.
Right. A woman who lives in New York recently said to me, “He always shows these guys like Idris Elba. He’s so cool, and he’s good looking, and he likes poetry. I’m not meeting bus drivers who like poetry! That’s not how life works!”
I love how you pointed out in the book that in Waiting to Exhale, the [single women] live in Phoenix, a city with a black population of about 5 percent — and the idea that they could date outside the race is totally foreign!
Yeah, that’s amazing. You see the same thing in Spike’s movies. Unless his views have changed, he’s been strongly in favor that the black woman can’t leave the black man behind. His take is: “Come one. You can’t do that to these guys. They depend on you. How can we be a strong community if the most successful of us go elsewhere?” And I think that resonates with people. If there weren’t this big [success] gap between black women and men, there would be less pressure on them to bond with the brothers.
I wanted to ask you about what I thought might be the most inflammatory thing you wrote about in the book: black women’s hair, and white dudes.
You made it sound like white guys would be the most tolerant of black women going natural. You wrote hilariously about that couple where the white guy looked at his girlfriend’s weave and said, “Stop.”
That’s another thing I hadn’t thought of [before writing the book]. There are no studies on this, obviously. There’s no data. But I was talking to someone in LA by chance, a black woman, and she said, we had this group — like a sister hair locking group. There were 10 of us. And she said in passing, nine of the 10 women in this group have non-black partners. And I thought, really — that’s fascinating. She said it in passing, but I started thinking there was probably a pattern there.
It was one of those things that highlighted a dynamic and made it obvious. On one side, there are a lot of what we call cultural norms within the African American community — straightening hair and whatnot. A lot of these norms are enforced within the community by black men, against black women. And, once I framed it that way, it was remarkable how many came up to me with stories, including one of my sisters, frankly. She said there was this guy, her former boyfriend, and this guy was telling her she should grow her hair out and wear it straight, and she shouldn’t go natural. And she was like, “Uh, you’re not my boyfriend – you were, but you’re not now, you’re married…and now you’re trying to tell me how to do my hair?” She began to see there was a way in which a hair suggestion was a means of social control, a certain way to get black women to do certain things for black men.
On the other side, there’s this idea that a lot of black women think, “A white guy won’t understand me. We’re in different spaces.” But it’s precisely because he is outside of your space that it might create more openness, more possibility, more acceptance, even. One of my favorite quotes was from a couple in LA, a white guy and a black woman, and the guy says, “I didn’t have any idea of what a black woman should be like.” So, he’s clueless, and she has to explain things to him that he didn’t know. But he doesn’t have presuppositions, and he’s not carrying any baggage, either. And I thought that was really cool.
How have white people responded to the book? Are they comfortable talking about it with you? Especially your academic colleagues?
Yeah, I think they’re comfortable talking about it. Among some populations, especially among some academics, which are not African-American, the whole issue about there being a big conflict or angst about interracial dating is foreign. They don’t get it. If you talk to a black audience, they get it: the question about whether or not to “cross over,” they get it. Regardless of their feelings about it, they all get it.
Whereas, if I’m talking to a bunch of academics at Columbia, or NYU, they might not. I had a colleague, and she’s a great sociologist. But I think she was really surprised that there was this internal tug of war, right, that a lot of black women feel about whether they could marry someone of another race. And I think that a lot of people might say, “Well, if there aren’t enough men in your group, of course you’re going to marry someone of another group. Why not? What else are you going to do? Stay single your whole life?” I had an academic friend read an early draft of the book, and he said, “Are you actually suggesting that some back women would be so committed to black men that they would hold out for a black man…even if it means they never get married?”
And I told him, yes. And he was like, “You can’t be serious.” He just didn’t know what to make of it. And that happens a lot.
In the book, you seem to show that marriage rates are declining among black people, but also among people overall. Can you see a time in the future where the institution of marriage will largely disappear in the United States?
I don’t like to predict the future. I like to write about the world as it is.
Related: All the Single (Black) Ladies