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Spring 2014
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Books and Culture

John H. McWhorter
Marrying Out
Black women will have to become more open to nonblack partners, Ralph Banks argues.
2 September 2011

Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone, by Ralph Richard Banks (Dutton, 304 pp., $25.95)

Stanford Law School professor Ralph Banks’s Is Marriage for White People? is essentially about a black American interviewee he calls Audrey. She’s 39, graduated from prestigious black college Spelman, and has an M.B.A. She has travelled the world and has a plush job with a multinational consulting firm. She is also unmarried and sees few signs that that will change.

What interests Banks is that Audrey is, in this last detail, typical. Seven out of ten black women are unmarried, and college-educated black women are twice as likely as their white female peers not to be married by their thirties. That is, they’re no more likely to marry or stay married—black divorce rates are also twice as high as white—than white women with only a high school diploma. The picture is little better for black men, fewer than half of whom are husbands. (Affluent black men, in fact, become less likely to marry the more money they earn—the reverse of the trend for white men.) Moreover, neither Africa nor slavery is the culprit here: as late as the 1950s, nine in ten black women married.

Banks’s book focuses mostly on black women, partly because their rates of singlehood are higher, partly because they were more forthcoming in interviews, and partly because he sees them as the ones who could solve the problem. “For black women, being unmarried has become the new normal, single the new black,” he writes.

It’s now standard to point to the high incarceration rates of black men, which render the ratio of women to available men unsuitably high, as a main cause of the black marriage crisis. But Banks focuses on educated black women, whom we would not expect this problem to affect. Audrey’s singlehood owes to other factors. One is that black men “marry out” of their racial group (about one in five) more than black women do (fewer than one in ten). Asian and Latino women are over three times as likely to marry out of their group as black women.

The naive observer would simply ask why black women don’t follow this lead and marry out more. Banks usefully recalls the hit film Waiting to Exhale, in which four black women in Phoenix are frustrated in finding love. Blacks constitute a mere 5 percent of Phoenix’s population, yet the possibility of the characters’ dating nonblack men is never even considered. Common wisdom also holds that white men simply aren’t interested in black women. A 2009 University of California–Irvine study of Internet dating found that 90 percent of white men specifying a racial preference excluded black women, while a study of the dating site OkCupid (conducted by its operators) showed that white men write back to black women’s messages 25 percent less than compatibility scores would predict.

Banks points out, however, that in the OkCupid study, Latino, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Native American men responded to black women at higher rates than white men—and often, black men—did. In the UC Irvine study, moreover, fewer than 60 percent of the white men noted any racial preference, which means that overall, half of white men expressed openness to black women. That portion of white men would add up to a larger population than that of all black men.

The Internet studies, then, haven’t shown that a concealed but potent racism largely bars black women from dating other races. Some white men also told Banks that they assumed black women would reject them, and Banks argues that much of the problem is, indeed, black women’s resistance to dating out. For some, the issues are elemental: some black women prefer a vernacular “swagger” more common in black men than in whites. Others can’t imagine marrying someone fundamentally unlike their fathers.

Other reasons for the resistance are more political, and they raise further questions. Many black women worry that a white man’s family wouldn’t accept them. Yet the heartening fact is that whereas, in 1958, 94 percent of whites in one survey disapproved of interracial marriage, today, among those under 35, only 6 percent do. Black women also express a desire for black-skinned children to help preserve the race. Here, again, we might imagine hearing large numbers of Mexican or Korean-American women saying the same thing—but we don’t. If the difference is that entire countries of Mexicans and Koreans exist, we might point to the widely accepted idea that black Americans are “African-American,” and thereby could lay claim to an entire continent. In any case, resistance to “miscegenation” conforms to neither the American ideal, the Civil Rights vision, nor brute biological imperatives.

Still more reasons: many black women say they don’t want to explain aspects of black female hair care to nonblack men. But what would we think of, say, a Korean woman who didn’t want to explain the food she grew up eating to a prospective partner? Black women also complain that white partners don’t “get” racism, but as Banks shows, whites’ competing accounts of incidents a black partner terms “racist” are hardly always inaccurate. Not all clerks who ask “May I help you?” are troubled that you have entered their store; sometimes a funny look is just a funny look.

Banks carefully parses the point: “If fears of interracial intimacy keep people separate now, it is because those fears embody the echo of the past. Many of us continue to act out the roles we first began to inhabit long ago. We scarcely stop to consider that we might change the script.” Meanwhile, black women often endure their men dating other women at the same time, a practice encouraged by the ratio problem, and shown in studies to be more common among black than white men. More black women marrying out, Banks suggests in a simple calculus, would eliminate the ratio disparity between unmarried black men and women, and thus the problems his book addresses. “For black women,” Banks argues in what seems the book’s money quote, “interracial marriage doesn’t abandon the race, it serves the race.”

Well, yes. Yet can Banks’s counsel, sound as it is, make a difference in the real world—let alone change cultural predilections set since infancy for the likes of “swagger”? Banks hopes his cool, clear reasoning can educate a person out of impulses to “preserve the race.” These impulses, though, often constitute a tribalist comfort zone; they form one way that a black person can gain the basic human comfort in belonging.

I’m inclined to think that the new generation of black women will be more open to nonblack partners. For now, however, Banks’s book will stand as a poignant description of a generation of accomplished women who discovered that the tribalist impulse their parents fostered in them—parents for whom that impulse was a necessity—has become an obstacle to finding marriage partners in multicultural America.

John H. McWhorter is a City Journal contributing editor.

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