Skip to main content

"Is Marriage for White People?" Black Marriage Rates Plummet

By Prof. Rick Banks

I have included a portion of the introduction to my recently released book ("Is Marriage for White People?"), along with a link to one of my recent appearances on CNN. In subsequent posts, I will discuss in some more detail the issues raised in the Introduction and in the CNN clip.

The captivating image of Barack and Michelle Obama accentuates a sobering reality. As African Americans, they are extraordinary in the most ordinary way: They are a married couple raising their children together.

Over the past half-century, African Americans have become the most unmarried people in our nation. By far. We are the least likely to marry and the most likely to divorce; we maintain fewer committed and enduring relationships than any other group. Not since slavery have black men and women been as unpartnered as we are now.

Although the African American marriage decline is especially pronounced among the poor, it is apparent as well among the affluent: doctors, lawyers, corporate professionals. Black women of all socioeconomic classes remain single not because they want to be, but instead because the ranks of black men have been decimated by incarceration, educational failure, and economic disadvantage. Nearly twice as many black women as men graduate college. As a result, college-educated black women are more likely than college-educated women of other races to remain unmarried or to wed a less educated man who earns less than they do. Half of college-educated black wives less educated husbands, a gap that makes such relationships more often conflicted and prone to divorce.

Yet black women do not marry men of other races. Black women marry across class lines, but not race lines. They marry down but not out. Thus, they lead the most racially segregated intimate lives of any Americans.

Why? Why, even amidst rising rates of interracial marriage, are black women the least likely to marry out? What are the consequences of the unprecedented rates at which they marry down or remain unmarried? These are the questions at the heart of my inquiry.

Throughout this book, I repeatedly invoke the idea of the relationship market. Although love cannot be bought or sold, the market metaphor highlights two developments that account for the marriage decline. One is that the rules of the market have changed, so that people marry for different reasons and with different expectations than in earlier eras. The other development is equally unprecedented: that women have moved ahead economically and educationally as men have begun to fall behind. Researching this book has been illuminating, indeed liberating. But writing it has been a struggle. Although the intersection of race and family has been one of my intellectual preoccupations since my undergraduate days more than twenty years ago, and a professional focus since I joined the Stanford Law School faculty more than a decade ago, finding my voice with this project has not been easy. Mybook confronts some uncomfortable truths about relationships between black men and women.

The book begins with African Americans, but it does not end with them. The story I tell of African Americans and marriage may seem exceptional—and in some ways it is—but it is also representative, distinct more in degree than in kind. Americans of all races are substantially less likely to be married now than their predecessors were a few generations ago. And throughout society, many men are struggling economically, victims of technological change and an increasingly global market for labor. As a majority of our nation’s college graduates, women are becoming better positioned than men to take advantage of the economic opportunities of the coming decades. And today’s high achieving women are already more likely than ever to marry a man who is either lower earning or less educated than they are.

As particular as the black experience may seem, it implicates readers of all races. The terrain of marriage and intimacy is shifting, for everyone, as never before. Black people are at the center of a social transformation whose reverberations encompass us all.

Here is a link to one of my recent appearances on CNN:


Popular Video