Friday would be my parents’ 63rd anniversary. They married Sept. 9, 1948, six months before the birth of my eldest sister, Ellen-Marie.
I don’t know if my parents had planned to get married anyway or if the pregnancy forced their hand. There also is the possibility that my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, a piano mover who is said to have been around 6’4″ with a shoe size in the vicinity of a 13 EEE, might have offered a bit of “encouragement.” My dad was 5’4”.
My father was a printer by trade; and though he was quite erudite, I don’t think he had a college degree. My mother, a social worker and teacher, did. Until my dad’s death, their 19-year marriage seemed sturdy and stable. For most of their life together, before my father took ill, they were able to live on his salary. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, an arrangement my father preferred.
Faced with the same set of circumstances today, would my parents’ marriage have survived? Would they have even gotten married in the first place?
In his new book, Is Marriage for White People?, Stanford Law Professor Ralph Richard Banks talks about the changes that have taken place in African American households over the past 50 years.
These days “black women are about half as likely to be married as their 1950s counterparts,” he writes. “Marriage has also declined among black men, fewer than half of whom are husbands.”
In the book, which is subtitled, “How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone,” Banks explores this decline and the socioeconomic forces that contribute to it: One in 10 black men in America is incarcerated. The college graduation rate for black women is nearly twice that of black men.
In my parents’ day, marriages between blue-collar men and white-collar women thrived, largely due to the fact that blue-collar men still were the primary breadwinners and a working-class salary could support a household.
And unlike today, I’m not sure that the blue-collar/white-collar gap necessarily represented an education gap or intellectual divide. Many of the black men in my Pittsburgh neighborhood had college degrees, but still worked in places like the Post Office or the steel mill because professional jobs were not available to them.
Banks acknowledges that today there remain a lot of strong black marriages across the blue-collar/white-collar line and that black men still earn more than black women overall. But black college-educated women are now in a better position to take advantage of the opportunities available in the new labor market, while opportunities for black men without a degree continue to disappear. As a result, the gap between middle class black women and blue-collar men is widening, and intimate relationships between them are often so fraught with tension and power struggles that it is difficult to make them work.
And although Banks insists that his book is not an advice book, his final premise is causing the biggest stir: If black women want happy, intimate relationships, they should open themselves up to finding their intellectual and professional equals in other races rather than trying to make relationships work across black class lines.
Moreover, he argues that because black women are less likely than any other group to date outside of their race, black men know they can always find a good woman without having to make a commitment or put in much effort. Banks suggests that if black women were to begin to look elsewhere, black men might step up their game.
I asked Banks to elaborate on his book:
ER: You lay out a convincing argument for why black women should seek relationships outside of their race as a way to not only increase their opportunities for lasting intimate relationships, but also to induce black men to be less complacent/more committed in terms of their relationships. Do you have advice for black men in terms of how they might change their behavior?
RB: In the book, I do not offer any “advice” or suggestions for black women, much less for black men. My goal is to generate a conversation about the African American marriage decline that is more substantive than previous iterations. I do highlight the conflict between black men and women, in order to clarify their differing goals. The book does suggest that black women’s allegiance to black men actually disserves women’s own interests, and doesn’t advance the race either.
ER: You offer a lot of damning statistics regarding the number of black men who are incarcerated (800,000 or 1 in 10) and the fact that nearly twice as many black women as black men finish college. You acknowledge that historical racism and the economic climate are major factors. What government policies would recommend to reverse these trends?
RB: That’s a big question, which is in fact the subject of my next book. The goal of this book is to trace the consequences for African Americans’ intimate relationships of the disadvantaged situation of black men.
ER: What kind of reactions have you gotten from black men to your book?
RB: The reactions range from very positive — Kirkus Reviews described the book as “Triumphant” — to very negative. I’ve been called a “racial pimp” who is trying to “profiteer” off black women’s difficulties with “sensationalized bullcrap” In addition to my “reprehensible title” I have been told that the book “relies on haphazard, shabby research and unsubstantiated theories wrapped in hollow, sophisticated rhetoric to make you give it a good look.” Of course, these comments are all from people who I know for certain haven’t read the book.
Those people who have read the book are struck by its candor, insight, and writing. My favorite response is from a New York Times editor who told me it was “unputdownable.” One of my aims with the book is to promote a national discussion about the obligations of black women to black men. The issues are complicated and emotionally fraught, and are perhaps best captured in the question of one CNN viewer: Do black women deserve better than what black men have to offer?
Aside from Kirkus, I think the reviewers were black men. Others are supportive, even if they don’t like, as my brother-in-law put it, “giving the white man a hunting license to take the black man’s woman from him.” “Brothers done lost so much,” he said, “now the woman going to be taken away too!”
ER: As the father of three boys, what kind of advice will you give your sons regarding their responsibilities as black men and as future partners and potential spouses?
RB: I want them to be good people, to respect themselves and to respect others, and to treat everyone well. One of my boys, though, says he doesn’t want to have children; I think he should have the freedom to be able to make that decision. Nor would I pressure him to become a husband if he doesn’t want to be. Not everyone needs to have children or marry, and I would only want my boys to do so if that is what they want.
ER: How do you think your relationship with your own father formed or informed the way you have approached relationships?
RB: Difficult question. My mother died when I was 9 years old, and that experience definitely enabled me to appreciate the benefits that (I imagine) would have come with having another parent. My dad did his best, and other family members helped as well. But I can’t pretend that one parent is as good as two.
Here’s more of Banks in his own words: