Photo of Ralph Richard Banks
Photo by Natalie Glatzel

Should black women be held hostage to the failings of black men? That’s the provocative question at the heart of a new book by
 Ralph Richard Banks (BA ’87, MA ’87), the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law. His book—Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone—has attracted attention from an extraordinary range of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and ESSENCE magazine, each publishing exclusive
 essays or excerpts just prior to the book’s release.

A review of the book has also appeared in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, where it was described as “an important book, and not only for those interested in African-American life.”

Banks’ interest in race and family life is long-standing and is reflected in his teaching of family law and other courses related to race and gender inequality. His first article as a law professor looked at transracial adoption and asked whether African-American children should be adopted by white families.

He was drawn to the issue in part because, as he says, “Adoption was not typically discussed in the context of race and so people weren’t really sure what their position should be, unlike conversation about, say, affirmative action, where people know where they stand. They had conflicted feelings about race in the context of family life—I had conflicted feelings about it. And I had to work through those feelings while writing. Part of this kind of scholarship necessarily involves self-examination.”

So too does his current book, one that also implicates his own experiences. He was 9 years old when his mother died and he went from a two-parent to a one-parent family. “That is the pivotal event of my life,” he says, noting that he can’t help but be concerned about the 70 percent of black children who are born to unmarried parents.

Is Marriage for White People? grew out of Banks’ desire to understand the precipitous decline in marriage among African Americans. “African Americans have become the most unmarried people in the United States over the last half a century—and by a long shot,” he says. Although especially apparent among the poor, the racial gap in marriage spans the socioeconomic spectrum. College-educated black men and women alike are less likely than their white counterparts to be married.

According to Banks many scholars had examined the waning of marriage among the black poor, but virtually none had considered marriage among the group that most intrigued him: the black middle class. “There are many scholars who study the black middle class, and many who study family patterns,” he explains. “But those two groups, and their respective academic literatures, are separate. They don’t go to the same conferences, and they don’t share their work with each other.”

Banks wanted to fill that gap and to do so in a way that would connect social developments among African Americans to changes in the broader society. Thus, the subtitle of his book is meant to capture that the African-American marriage decline is one especially acute expression of a more general decline in marriage throughout American society.

He began his project as professors typically do, by reviewing the scholarly literature. He began with legal scholars’ assessments of family patterns and quickly moved on to the literatures from economics, sociology, psychology, and history.

Then the project took an unexpected turn one day, as he was describing it to a group of Stanford alumni: “A black woman in the group said ‘you know, that sounds like my life’ and I could see,” says Banks, “that she wanted to tell her story.” So he decided to interview her, the first of some 100 interviews, most of them with college-educated African-American women. “These women had stories, and they wanted to share them. It’s important for them personally,” he says.

The interviews highlighted the centrality of a social development that had received relatively little attention: the increased percentage of wives who are better educated and higher earning than their husbands.

“As with the marriage decline, this development is especially apparent among African Americans; more than half of college-educated black wives have more schooling than their husbands,” Banks says. “But it is also true that a quarter of all wives now earn more than their husbands, compared with only a few percent of wives who did so forty years ago.”

A pivotal factor in these developments, Banks concludes, is that while women are moving ahead educationally and, in turn, economically, many men are falling behind. The economic repositioning of men and women is most apparent among African Americans. Nearly twice as many black women as men now graduate from college. And black men’s educational failure often results in incarceration and unemployment. More than 1 in 10 black men in their 20s or early 30s are currently incarcerated, and estimates are that 1 in 4 black men will spend time behind bars. Black men’s rate of joblessness is, unsurprisingly, higher than among other groups.

Yet, says Banks, although black women confront the thinnest pool of men within their own race, they are also the least likely minority group to marry someone of another race. “In terms of their intimate lives, black women are the most racially segregated group in our nation.” Black men are between two and three times as likely as black women to wed someone of a different race, and Asian Americans and Latinos are three or more times as likely as black women to find love across the color line. He contends that the pressures—from media, popular culture, family, and friends—for black women to confine themselves to black men are tantamount to black women being held hostage. “It is as though black women are not permitted to realize their hopes of marriage and family,” Banks says, “until black men are doing better.”

Perhaps the most provocative and counterintuitive aspect of the book is Banks’ claim that if more black women opened themselves to relationships with men of other races, they would not only find more and better relationships with non-black men, they’d have more stable relationships with black men as well. This, he says, is because one source of the African-American marriage decline is the relationship power that black men wield as a result of their scarcity. “If black women don’t marry because they have too few options, some black men don’t because they have too many,” Banks says. And the only way for black women to counter that power imbalance is to expand their own options. SL