“At this point in my life,” says Audrey, age 39, “I thought I’d be married with children.” A native of southeast Washington, D.C., and the child of parents who are approaching their 50th wedding anniversary, Audrey seems like the proverbial “good catch”—smart, funny, well-educated, attractive.
Audrey earns a good living, too, with an income from management consulting that far surpasses what her parents ever made. Her social life is busy as well, filled with family, friends and church.
Only about one in 20 black women is interracially married; they are much less likely than black men to cross the race line.
What Audrey lacks is a husband. As she told me, sitting at a restaurant in the fashionable Dupont Circle neighborhood of the nation’s capital, “I’m trying to get to a point where I accept that marriage may never happen for me.”
Audrey belongs to the most unmarried group of people in the U.S.: black women. Nearly 70% of black women are unmarried, and the racial gap in marriage spans the socioeconomic spectrum, from the urban poor to well-off suburban professionals. Three in 10 college-educated black women haven’t married by age 40; their white peers are less than half as likely to have remained unwed.
What explains this marriage gap? As a black man, my interest in the issue is more than academic. I’ve looked at all the studies—the history, the social science, the government data—and I’ve spent a year traveling the country interviewing scores of professional black women. In exchange for my promise to conceal their identities (in part by using pseudonyms, as I’ve done here), they shared with me their most personal experiences and desires in relation to marriage and family.
I came away convinced of two facts: Black women confront the worst relationship market of any group because of economic and cultural forces that are not of their own making; and they have needlessly worsened their situation by limiting themselves to black men. I also arrived at a startling conclusion: Black women can best promote black marriage by opening themselves to relationships with men of other races.
Audrey and other black women confront a social scene in which desirable black men are scarce.
Part of the problem is incarceration. More than two million men are now imprisoned in the U.S., and roughly 40% of them are African-American. At any given time, more than 10% of black men in their 20s or 30s—prime marrying ages—are in jail or prison.
Educationally, black men also lag. There are roughly 1.4 million black women now in college, compared to just 900,000 black men. By graduation, black women outnumber men 2-to-1. Among graduate-school students, in 2008 there were 125,000 African-American women but only 58,000 African-American men. That same year, black women received more than three out of every five law or medical degrees awarded to African-Americans.
These problems translate into dimmer economic prospects for black men, and the less a man earns, the less likely he is to marry. That’s how the relationship market operates. Marriage is a matter of love and commitment, but it is also an exchange. A black man without a job or the likelihood of landing one cannot offer a woman enough to make that exchange worthwhile.
But poor black men are not the only ones who don’t marry. At every income level, black men are less likely to marry than are their white counterparts. And the marriage gap is wider among men who earn more than $100,000 a year than among men who earn, say, $50,000 or $60,000 a year.
The dynamics of the relationship market offer one explanation for this pattern. Because black men are in short supply, their options are better than those of black women. A desirable black man who ends a relationship with one woman will find many others waiting; that’s not so for black women.
If many black women remain unmarried because they think they have too few options, some black men stay single because they think they have so many. The same numbers imbalance that makes life difficult for black women may be a source of power for black men. Why cash in, they reason, when it is so easy to continue to play?
Black women who do marry often end up with black men who are less accomplished than they are. They are more likely than any other group of women to earn more than their husbands. More than half of college-educated black wives are better educated than their husbands.
The prevalence of relationships between professional black women and blue-collar black men may help to explain another aspect of the racial gap in marriage: Even as divorce rates have declined for most groups during the past few decades, more than half of black marriages dissolve.
Cecelia, a corporate lawyer who graduated from Columbia Law School, married a construction worker. When he relocated from Denver to her brownstone in Harlem, it took him the better part of a year to find work. “It was a huge strain on the relationship,” Cecelia told me. She didn’t mind his being out of work, but he did. “He was uncomfortable living off me,” Cecelia said. The marriage didn’t last.
So why don’t more black women, especially the most accomplished of them, marry men of other races? Why do they marry down so much and out so little?
Black women are the most unmarried group in America.
Black women lead by far the most segregated intimate lives of any minority group in the U.S. They are less than half as likely as black men to wed across racial lines. Only about 1 in 20 black women are interracially married.
Part of the reason, again, is the market. Numerous studies of Internet dating confirm that black women are the partners least desired by non-black men.
But that’s not the whole story. Even if a majority of white men are uninterested in dating black women, that still leaves more than enough eligible white men for every single black woman in America. Moreover, many major urban areas have large numbers of Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern and Latino men, some of whom, according to at least one study of Internet dating, are more responsive to black women than are black men.
To understand the intimate segregation of black women, we must go beyond the question of whether black women are wanted and look instead at what they want. For some black women, the personal choice of an intimate partner is political. They want to help black men, not abandon them. As one woman told me, “If you know your history, how can you not support black men?”
Others prefer black men because they don’t think a relationship with a non-black man would work. They worry about rejection by a would-be spouse’s family or the awkwardness of having to explain oneself to a non-black partner.
As one 31-year-old schoolteacher in D.C. told me, “It’s easy to date a black man because he knows about my hair. He knows I don’t wash it every day. He knows I’m going to put the scarf on [to keep it in place at night].” Discussions about hair may seem trivial, but for many black women, just the thought of having the “hair talk” makes them tired. It’s emblematic of so much else they’d have to teach.
Some black women resist interracial marriage for a more primal reason. Long before Cecelia began her ill-fated relationship with her now ex-husband, she dated a white law-school classmate. They broke up because she couldn’t imagine having children with him. “I wanted chocolate babies,” she explained to me.
Given her milk-chocolate complexion, green eyes and curly hair, Cecelia worried that a biracial baby might come out looking white. Cecelia wanted chocolate babies not just so they would stay connected to black culture, but for another reason as well: So that no one would ever question whether they were hers. With biracial children, she feared that she might be mistaken for the nanny. Many black women share her anxiety about having a biracial child.
What would happen if more black women opened themselves to the possibility of marrying non-black men?
To start, they might find themselves in better relationships. Some professional black women would no doubt discover that they are more compatible with a white, Asian or Latino coworker or college classmate than with the black guy they grew up with, who now works at the auto shop.
By opening themselves to relationships with men of other races, black women would also lessen the power disparity that depresses the African-American marriage rate. As more black women expanded their options, black women as a group would have more leverage with black men. Even black women who remained unwilling to love across the color line would benefit from other black women’s willingness to do so.
It’s hard to resist the paradoxical possibility that, if more black women married non-black men, then more black men and women might, in time, marry each other.
—Mr. Banks is the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. Adapted from “Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone” by Ralph Richard Banks, to be published by Dutton on Sept. 1. Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Richard Banks.