By Ralph Richard Banks
Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law
Stanford Law School
Work: (650) 723-6591
Cell: (650) 703-2226
More than 2 out of every 3 black women are currently unmarried, as are a majority of black men, and black women are 3 times as likely as white women never to marry.
College educated black women are twice as likely as their white peers never to marry, and a majority of college-educated black wives have less educated husbands.
These figures are often blamed on the shortage of stable and employed men in low-income communities, and there’s considerable truth in that explanation. But racial gaps in marriage span the socioeconomic spectrum. At every income level black men are less likely than white men to be married.
Indeed, by some measures, the racial gap is actually wider among affluent men than among their economically disadvantaged counterparts. In most racial-ethnic groups, increases in income consistently translate into a greater likelihood of marriage. But the most affluent black men-those who earn more than $100,000 a year — are actually less likely to marry than their lower earning but economically stable counterparts, men who earn, say, $50,000 or $60,000 a year.
One way to understand these features of the contemporary African-American relationship scene is the gender imbalance at all income and educational levels. In lower-income groups, black men have fallen behind their female counterparts, victims of a criminal justice system that incarcerates them en masse, an educational system that fails them, and a labor market that offers few lawful economic opportunities for poorly educated men. At any given time, more than 1 in 10 black men in their twenties and early thirties-prime marrying ages-is incarcerated.
But there is also a shortage of potential partners for middle-income and high-income black women. Many of the union jobs and other work that once allowed male high school graduates to earn middle-income wages have vanished, even as jobs that traditionally employ females have expanded. Only half as many black men as women complete college. The ranks of eligible black men are depleted further still by intermarriage: black men are 2 to 3 times as likely as black women to marry someone of another race, and economically successful black men are the most likely to do so.
While many black women don’t marry because they have too few options, some black men don’t marry because they have too many. In the relationship market, scarcity equals power: The better one’s options outside the relationship, the more leverage one can exert within it. A desirable black man who ends an unsatisfying relationship will find many other women waiting. That’s not true for black women, especially those who limit their relationships to black men.
When black women do marry, they are likely to marry men with less education or earnings than themselves. Half of all college-educated black wives have a husband with less education – often significantly less. In a world where successful marriages increasingly depend on shared interests rather than separate spheres, this incompatibility contributes to lower rates of marital satisfaction and higher rates of divorce in the black community. Some black men use their scarcity advantage, as men in other racial-ethnic groups and cultures have also done in similar situations, to maintain relationships that are sexually intimate but not monogamous. Research suggests that black men are more likely than any other group of American men to maintain relationships with multiple women. The end result is above-average rates of discord and distrust between black men and women.
Certainly, not all black men take advantage of the numbers imbalance. But when her partner’s behavior is less than satisfactory, a black woman, recognizing that she is on the wrong side of a numbers imbalance, may feel she has few options and hence little power to demand a different arrangement.
The most common response to the waning of black marriage has been to redouble the pressure on black women to uplift the community by bonding with their brothers in need. Black women have been urged — by marriage activists, advice magazines, and often by their friends and families — to “save” black men. Interracial marriage has been cast as a form of abandonment or betrayal. Better to remain single or put up with a partner’s bad behavior, the thinking goes, than to “betray the race.”
Black women are further discouraged from looking elsewhere by the widespread belief that they have few options for forming relationships with men who are not black. Much has been made, for example, of an OkCupid website study finding that black women send the most messages and receive the fewest replies of any group, and that white men write back to black women 25 percent less frequently than they should based on the compatibility scores the website calculates.
But fixating on that finding underestimates black women’s prospects in an integrated relationship market. In that same OkCupid study, Latino, Middle Eastern, Indian and Native American men all responded to black women at rates substantially higher than did white men. In fact, some of these groups of men responded to black women at higher rates than did black men!
The scarcity factor works in black women’s favor when they look beyond their own race. Black women constitute only 13 percent of the total female population, while non-black men are roughly 87 percent of the male population. Even taking into account that some white men may not want to date black women, there are more white men who are willing to form a relationship with a black woman than there are black women available to date. When we include other racial-ethnic groups, the odds get even better. There are certainly three or more times as many non-black men willing to date black women as there are black women.
In interviewing black women for my forthcoming book, I discovered many reasons that black women hesitate to cross the race line in their search for love. Many feel an understandable loyalty to their male counterparts, because they know all too well the that racist indignities and injustices persist of the racist legacy in America. Some fear rejection by their partner’s family or their own. Some assume that men of a different race, white men in particular, won’t know anything about black women, black culture, or black history, and will lack the ability or desire to learn. Others worry that as a result of racist stereotypes, some non-black men will view a black woman as a fetish object or an exotic adventure, someone to experience but not to love.
And some black women remain within the race because they want their children to identify as black and fear that if they are biracial, they won’t. They don’t want children whose complexion is so light that their black mother may be mistaken for the nanny.
These and other explanations given by the women I interviewed are all very understandable. Yet as interracial marriage becomes ever more accepted, black women willing to enter the integrated romantic marketplace will find considerable benefits. Some research suggests that black women who marry outside the race are less likely to divorce than those who marry within it. One reason for this is that, in general, college-educated black women may have more in common with their white, Asian, or Latino classmates and co-workers than with a black guy they grew up with who never went on to higher education. By marrying out, black women avoid the need to marry down.
If significant numbers of black women embark on interracial relationships, this will help counteract the power imbalance that diminishes the marriage rate and corrodes relationships in the black community. The more black women expand their relationship options, the less power black men will wield, and the greater ability black women will have to create the kind of relationship they desire. It is difficult to resist this paradoxical conclusion: If more black women married non-black men, then more black men and women would marry each other.