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Is Marriage For White People?

Publication Date: 
September 04, 2011
Thomas Rogers

Professor Rick Banks spoke with's Thomas Rogers to discuss his new book "Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone" and to explain why African Americans have become less likely to have enduring, stable, intimate relationships over the last 30 or 40 years.

Over the past century, the institution of marriage has undergone a tremendous transformation in America -- especially when it comes to African-Americans. Over the last half century, marriage rates in the black community have dwindled. Black women are more than three times as likely as white women to remain unmarried for their entire lives, and when they do marry they're more likely than any other group to marry men with lower incomes, and less education, than their own.

Although, at first glance, this trend seems like a testament to the successes of feminism, Ralph Richard Banks, the author of the new book, "Is Marriage for White People?", argues that it represents a disturbing shift in the landscape of African-American intimacy. Banks, a professor of law at Stanford University, uses detailed interviews and extensive statistical research to argue that this gender and racial imbalance has dire implications for both child-rearing and the long-term happiness of African-American women. In the process, he makes provocative claims about both the importance of marriage and the reasons for its decline -- claims that are sure to inflame opinion in a number of circles.

Salon spoke to Banks over the phone about the drug war's role in this trend, the cultural importance of marriage -- and why many feminists are likely to misunderstand his message.

The book was prompted by what you call the "fracturing of black intimacy" in America. What do you mean by that?

African-Americans have become less likely to have enduring, stable, intimate relationships over the last 30 or 40 years. In the book I talk about it in terms of the marriage decline, but we should be clear that marriage decline is shorthand for the decline in stable, committed, intimate relationships.


So why is this a problem?

First of all, I should say that it's fine for people to not be married. But one of the things I wanted to investigate with the interviews [in my book] is whether black women actually wanted to be unmarried. A lot of people say that black women simply realized that they don't need to be married, and I found there is some truth in that. Women now have more freedom than ever to live life on their own or as they see fit because they're able to work and bring in an income, so they don't have to depend on men for economic support. The pressures to marry aren't as great and people can imagine not being married. At the same time, it is the case that most black women imagine their life with a partner. This is true for most people. They may not want to marry just anyone. They may not want to marry early. They may not be desperate to marry, but did they envision that they would be 35, unmarried, and childless? No. That wasn't the plan and it's not the life that women want, and black women in particular are not able to realize that desire.