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New book sparks debate on how unwed trend among blacks ‘affects everyone’
An unwed birthrate of 70 percent. Statistically low marriage rates and statistically high divorce rates. For an entire population - from low-income to high-income.
If these statements paint an accurate portrait of black men and women in America today, they raise the question, "Is marriage for white people?" And that's what Stanford Law School professor Ralph Richard Banks is asking in a provocative new book that has sparked a national conversation on relationships, marriage and race.
"African-Americans have become the most unmarried people in our nation," Mr. Banks wrote in his new book, "Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone."
It wasn't always this way, he said, noting that a half-century ago, nine of 10 black women married. But somehow, along the way, "marriage became a luxury, not a necessity" - and the ramifications of the decline in black marriage are likely to have profound implications for the culture at large.
Mr. Banks, who is black and happily married to a black woman, does not pretend to have the answer to his question. He just wants to start a national conversation about marriage among blacks.
The professor does have one suggestion, though, which is for black women to stop waiting in vain for black husbands to appear, and start marrying outside their race instead.
There's no need for black women to ignore "the other 87 percent" of men in the country, especially when black men and everyone else freely marry "out," Mr. Banks said. Moreover, if black women weren't such a captive pool for black men, he added, it might even inspire more of the brothers to "put a ring on it," as singer Beyonce famously suggested.
As Mr. Banks makes the rounds on radio, TV and print media, he is sparking a lot of conversations.
"Yes, it's kind of a hot topic," said Frances Ballard, a research scientist at Child Trends and wife of Charles Ballard, the pioneer of the "responsible fatherhood" movement.
There are many reasons why black women - and their daughters and nieces - may be rethinking their marriage options, said Mrs. Ballard.
"African-American women want to marry," and "they know that children do better in a two-parent home," she said. "And yet there are fewer available black men who have gone to college, not prison; have steady, good jobs; and are ready to be a family man instead of a single father. It's definitely a vicious cycle."
It's also true that interracial marriages and childbearing are on the rise, said Mrs. Ballard, noting that the Census Bureau recently reported that the number of persons saying they are "black and white" rose from about 785,000 in 2000 to 1.8 million in 2010.
Stigma about being biracial "is not as common as before - you see more couples in church," she said.
But it's still not easy to imagine being married to someone who's not black, given all the cultural and other differences, said Mrs. Ballard. Take hair, for instance: How would a young black woman explain her hair to her nonblack husband, she asked with a laugh.
Mr. Banks has some ready replies to concerns about his "marry out" suggestion. Black women, for many reasons, have seemed to be willing to marry "down" - to a black man with less education or a lower-earning occupation - but not "out," said Mr. Banks.
Sometimes marrying down - a favorite theme in the movies by popular black filmmaker Tyler Perry - can work, he said. But these unions carry their own difficulties and often don't have a happy ending - two of three black marriages end in divorce.
So what is left is a scenario where black men - particularly those with higher education degrees and secure careers - take full advantage of their relative scarcity in the "market." This inequality lets black men be the "deal-makers" and black women the "deal-takers" in relationships, Mr. Banks said during a recent appearance at the Institute for American Values, co-hosted by retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears Ward.
It is also leading to "an epidemic of singledom" for black women, he added.
Mr. Banks is already working on a new book about boys and gender gaps, to keep the conversation going.
Meanwhile, there is evidence that the next generation of black men and women will not give up on marriage.
A 2008 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that most black teens viewed marriage as important, felt well prepared for marriage and thought "it is better to get married than stay single."
Another federal study found that 78 percent of blacks ages 20 to 24 agreed that it is "very important" or "important" to be married someday, and 66 percent say it's “almost certain" or "a good chance" that they will be married in 10 years.
Data like these are "surprising and reassuring" - "these really are positive attitudes toward marriage," said Mindy E. Scott, author of a July 2009 Child Trends paper on marital aspirations.
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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor. Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...
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