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Blacks, Whites And The Wedding Gap

Publication Date: 
September 16, 2011
The New York Times - Sunday Book Review
Imani Perry

Professor Rick Banks' book "Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone," is reviewed by Imani Perry in this New York Times article.

The unmarried black woman is a figure of cultural fascination these days. Cable news specials, popular books by Steve Harvey and T. D. Jakes, the films of Tyler Perry, and newspaper articles about single black women and their children born out of wedlock send waves of dismay through the American public. The explanations offered for this phenomenon tend to be of two sorts: prurient accounts of black male promiscuity and irresponsibility, or caricatures of aggressive and unreasonable black women. It is rare for the popular media to include careful social or historical analyses. Rather, they are often purveyors of a moral panic presented without root or reason.

Upon reading the title “Is Marriage for White People?” I assumed the book, by the Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks, would follow in this trend. But I was wrong. Banks doesn’t offer a jeremiad about the decline of black family values in the way of so many others who do little more than regurgitate Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which described black family structure as “a tangle of pathology.” Refreshingly, Banks offers a well-researched and probing discussion of why marriage rates are so low among black Americans.


Black women significantly outperform black men in high school and college. As a result, the black middle class is disproportionately female and the black poor are disproportionately male, and the gap is widening. Extraordinary rates of incarceration for black men, and the long-term effects of a prison record on employment, exacerbate this situation. Banks refers to studies indicating that “in evaluating potential mates, economic stability still matters more for African-Americans than for other groups.” Yet they may never find that security, and therefore never marry.


Banks handily extinguishes the myth that black women are too picky when seeking a mate. In fact, he notes that black women are more likely than women of other groups to marry men who are less successful than they are, educationally or occupationally. With the rich detail afforded by extensive interviews, Banks sheds light on the powerful specter of stereotypes about welfare queens and Jezebels, and plumbs the emotional lives of black women, describing the loneliness they feel when marriage prospects are dim. He also explains that because economically successful black men are relatively rare, their power on the dating market is heightened; affluent black men can “play the field” indefinitely, and this too has a negative impact on marriage.