Book Review: Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone by Ralph Richards Banks
BY: KATHLEEN S. PETERS
Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone provides a historical and sociological analysis of the declining marriage rates in the African American community. The first book by Stanford Law professor Ralph Richard Banks, Is Marriage focuses specifically on middle-class African American women and discusses why, of all Americans, this group is the least likely to marry and the most likely to divorce. Through sociological studies and numerous interviews with professional African American women, Banks narrows down what he sees as the main problems in African American relationships and offers some suggestions for future action to remedy these trends. While he raises some interesting points and seemed to do his homework as far as statistics, Banks sorely lacks a deeper analysis of the issues he discusses, especially with regards to gender.
Banks organizes his book fairly thematically, covering a wide range of topics and their effects on African American marriages and relationships. One such topic is the educational gap within the African American community. Banks discusses how African American women finish high school and college at higher rates than African American men and how this leads to not only different values being placed on education, but also disparities in income between the genders. While in other racial groups men’s income still exceeds that of women, Banks states that on average this is the opposite for African Americans (Banks 40). Banks also points out the horrifically high incarceration rates and mortality rates of Black men, and how this phenomenon not only breaks up African American marriages but decreases the number of available Black men. Another one of Banks’ stronger chapters discusses fears and concerns some Black women have of interracial relationships, particularly with white men. He brings up not only the cultural and family expectations that Black women will date only Black men, but also fears that white men would be dating Black women for the wrong reasons (152).
While Banks’ makes some valid arguments, there are also some major issues with his discussion of African American marriage. First of all, Banks looks at the issue of African American relationships and marriage solely through a heterosexual lens and completely ignores the existence or possibility of LGBT African Americans. Apart from one fleeting (and somewhat offensive) comment one single interviewee made of how “even they [gay couples] can get married,” there is no discussion of LGBT African Americans, the issues they face in the dating scene, or what they want in their romantic lives (16). Another assumption is that Banks does not discuss or question the necessity of marriage in the first place. He states that in Europe it is much more common for “couples to maintain long-term stable relationships without being married.” Citing an unidentified study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Banks states that 91% of cohabiting couples in the United States either separate or marry within a few years (24-25). That statistic and others used throughout the book could be given more context than Banks provides. Overall, Banks assumes that marriage is the goal of all the individuals that he interviews, and that the women who state otherwise are few and far between (14). Banks also frequently uses the desire of African Americans wanting to get married as evidence against claims that declining Black marriage rates are due to “deviant values” within the community (70). While Banks is correct in countering these Moynihan-esque* arguments, he does so by othering those who do not want to get married.
My largest problem with this book, however, is the lack of a gender analysis. The majority of Banks’ information comes from interviews with African American middle class women. Banks uses several quotes from his interviewees, which often perpetuate gender stereotypes of a woman feeling incomplete without a husband/nuclear family. This may have been the true feelings of the women Banks interviewed, thus I cannot judge their experiences or the reasons for their comments. However Banks could have provided greater context for why these stereotypes still exist and the way U.S. society fosters these beliefs. The need for deeper analysis of these interviews is most apparent when issues of gender and class overlap. Banks describes many middle class women saying that when they were pregnant, they often made a point to always wear their wedding ring out in public so as not to appear like the “[poor], unwed black mother, immoral, promiscuous, irresponsible.” They wanted to be “the antithesis of that portrayal of black women” (72-73). While it may be true that there are active efforts to counter stereotypes put forth by a white-dominated, patriarchal U.S. society, for Banks to leave these quotes unexamined is irresponsible and helps to validate these stereotypes.
Another example of unexamined gender stereotypes is in his sixth chapter, “Power Wives.” Banks states that because there is an education and income gap between Black men and women, Black couples often have switched traditional gender roles with the wives being the breadwinners. Banks states that this gender imbalance puts “understandable pressure” on the husband, makes him “feel less of a man,” and “reminds [him] in a humiliating fashion of his own failure to fulfill the role of the husband” (95). Banks often writes, almost nostalgically, of how previous generations did not have to deal with such challenges to gender roles, and ultimately implies that these traditional roles made marriages simpler and easier. Banks states that his book is going to counter the idea that Black women are too picky and demanding in relationships, however this is just one example of how he in fact perpetuates that image.
Banks’ ultimate conclusion to the declining rates of African American marriage is for Black women to be as open to marrying “out” of their race as they are to marrying “down” from their class. He states that if Black women opened themselves up to dating men of other races that they would be more marriage possibilities and that this could solve some key issues within the Black community. “Recall that relationships are negotiations and that, as in any negotiation, which party prevails depends on the power that that person can bring to bear…the better one’s options outside of the relationship, the more power one has within it” (180). Thus while as of now Black men have more power in relationships because of the disproportionate gender ratio, if Black women opened themselves up to more dating options then Black women would get married more frequently, Black men’s leverage would decrease, and Black women would gain more bargaining power in their relationships.
While this solution may be Banks’ attempt to make the best out of the current situation, this conclusion is flawed because it not only places the blame on Black women, but it ignores many of the societal factors Banks refers to throughout his book. Not least of these factors is the huge (and I mean huge) percentages of Black men in prison and the way the U.S. education system handles Black male youth. Instead of Banks’ focusing on what Black women can do to better the rates of Black marriage, why not address the prison industrial complex and the reasons there are these disproportionate incarceration rates in the first place? Why not discuss how our education system could be improved and truly address the achievement gap? That would be much harder than simply telling Black women to date “out,” but it might get more to the heart of the real issue.
*For more info on The Moynihan Report read our review of Freedom Is Not Enough.