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'Is Marriage For White People?': Review

Publication Date: 
October 23, 2011
San Francisco Chronicle
Thomas Chatterton Williams

Professor Rick Banks' book, "Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone" is reviewed below by Thomas Chatterton Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle.

It's no secret that the African American family, at every class level, is under pressure. Consider the following facts: Black women are half as likely as white women to be married, and twice as likely never to marry; college-educated black women are more likely than any other group of American women to be celibate; nearly 7 out of 10 black women are unmarried; more than 70 percent of black babies are born to unmarried parents; the majority of college-educated black women who are married have husbands who are not college graduates; the racial gap in marriage rates between blacks and whites is actually vaster among the well-to-do than among the poor.

There are a host of theories that try to make sense of these numbers. Some sociologists argue that the crisis is rooted in slavery. Others trace the problem further back, to the African tribes from which the slaves were plucked. Still others maintain that welfare is to blame. But the most widely held view is the "marriageable-man" theory, which identifies declining black male employment levels as the real culprit.

All of "[t]hese explanations may help to explain the waning of marriage among the black poor, but not among African Americans who are college-educated and economically stable," writes Ralph Richard Banks, a professor of law at Stanford. "More African Americans are middle-class than poor. ... Why are middle-class black men and women so much less likely than other middle-class Americans to marry or stay married?"

Banks' new book, "Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone," is that rare piece of writing that takes a fresh look at a much-discussed problem and proposes some seemingly novel yet wholly commonsense solutions.


Banks defines marriages such as this as "mixed" and points out that they tend to be imbalanced in ways that interracial unions don't have to be. Black women, Banks argues, would be well served to look beyond the black community for spouses. Yet for a variety of reasons - some of them valid, some of them not - a substantial majority of black women feel that only black men are suitable romantic partners. They are less likely than any other minority group to date outside their race. (Black men, on the other hand, don't display anywhere near the same degree of solidarity.) The cruel paradox of such thinking is that it only increases the scarcity of marriageable black men.


Yet the current predicament is also cause for concern: While poor, uneducated black women are most likely to have children, successful, highly educated black women continue to view marriage and procreation as a package. "The advantages that their white counterparts will transmit across generations will for these black women stop with them," writes Banks. "They have excelled in the race of life only to find that there is no one to whom to pass the baton." As one middle-aged graduate of Harvard and Yale confided: "There's no one who can benefit from my legacy status. It amounts to nothing." Multiply that out exponentially. Is that not an equally alarming form of demise?