Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Stanford Law Professor Encourages Black Women to Marry White Men

Ralph Richard Banks, a professor at Stanford Law School, has published an interesting essay in the Wall Street Journal: "An Interracial Fix for Black Marriage." The essay is adapted from a forthcoming book, "Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone."


In this brief analysis, Banks makes several claims. He observes that black women are the "most unmarried group of people in the U.S." Based on interviews with black women and other materials, Banks asserts that:
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.
Banks further argues that due to high rates of incarceration and lower rates of educational attainment, black men are in "short supply" as potential husbands. And even when black women marry, they often marry "less accomplished" black men, which Banks claims could contribute to high divorce rates among blacks.

These observations lead Banks to the question his essay (and presumably forthcoming book) seeks to answer: "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?"

Based on his review of studies of Internet dating websites, Banks contends that black women are the least desired dating prospect for nonblack men. Still, according to Banks, black women are partly responsible for their own "intimate segregation":
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.
Furthermore, based on a series of interviews he conducted, Banks asserts that black women do not seek nonblack husbands because they fear the relationships would not work or because they want "chocolate babies" (what Banks describes as a "primal" reason). Banks, however, contends that this self-imposed segregation is injurious and unnecessary.

If black women opened themselves up to the possibility of marrying nonblack men, then they "might find themselves in better relationships." Rather than marrying "down," professional black women, for example, could "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."

Black women could also acquire more "leverage" over black men. According to Banks, because there are so few black men to marry, a small number of eligible black men are potentially available for massive numbers of black and nonblack women. As a result, black men can dictate the terms of their relationships.

If black women, however, sought nonblack partners, they could increase their bargaining power with black men, which could benefit all black women. Banks sees a lot of potential in this bargaining power thesis: it could cause more black people to marry each other. Black women's increased leverage would allow them to keep black men from straying outside of their race (Banks notes that black men are more likely than black women to marry nonblack partners). Thus, Banks concludes that: "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."

My Response

Although I am fascinated by and a scholar on the topic of race and intimacy, I have numerous problems with this essay. Granted, the full book is not yet in print, and Banks may address some of my concerns in that longer discussion. Nevertheless, I will proceed with my analysis of this piece of the broader argument that Banks has offered.

1. Methodology

Although Banks refers to social science data in his essay, the bulk of the "evidence" he presents is anecdotal. Banks conducted numerous interviews with black women (he does not reveal how many), and he offers snippets from those discussions to substantiate his arguments. While similar observations about black marriage and dating have received wide coverage in black pop culture (e.g., Essence Magazine, Ebony, BET, etc.), the use of anecdotes (especially anecdotes that sometimes sound like a selection from grocery store literature) undermines the very complicated argument that Banks seeks to make.

2. Love on a One-Way Street

Banks also portrays black women as having complete control over their own destinies with respect to the race of their partners. This is a difficult claim to prove, and it goes against a large body of social science data. Banks cites studies of Internet dating websites for the proposition that black women are the least desired partners of nonblack men. This data is problematic because it cannot represent a random sampling of the entire dating population.

Nevertheless, Banks quickly dismisses the significance of his own research and contends that black women could still find enough willing white men as partners. Numerous sociological studies, however, show that blacks and whites have the highest rates of "intraracial" marriage of any groups in the country; well over 90% of blacks and whites marry within their own race.

Despite the erosion of many forms of prejudice in this context, empirical research consistently demonstrates that for blacks and whites alike, race remains an important factor in terms of intimacy. Neighborhood segregation also undoubtedly contributes to this marital racial pattern.

In spite of this evidence, Banks concludes that black women have the agency to revolutionize the racial dynamics of marriage and intimacy. This is a difficult argument to substantiate, and Banks does not do so in this short essay.

Even if there are enough white men who want to marry black women, it is unclear how black women would find them. If only a small percentage of white men actually want to marry a black woman, then it seems likely that a rational black woman would avoid expending emotions and resources on a quest to find the exceptional white man who wants to marry a black woman. Banks does not explain why a rational black woman would invite more uncertainty and difficulty into intimate relationships, which are already sites of vulnerability. Numbers alone do not dictate the terms of intimacy. Emotions, fears, lust and a host of other factors that Banks does not consider are also relevant.

3. Why Marriage?

Banks assumes that marriage is a social good, but he does not make the case for this. Marriage rates are declining across racial groups -- not just among blacks. Also, divorce rates are accelerating across racial groups. Furthermore, society is rethinking the role of marriage as a social institution in many respects.

While society is contesting and redefining intimacy and marriage, Banks assumes the ongoing value of marriage. Banks prizes marriage so much that he encourages black women to revolutionize racial dynamics that they alone cannot feasibly control in order to enter into this relationship. To Banks, the frequency of nonmarriage in the black community requires a "fix." Hopefully, Banks explains why he believes that marriage remains imperative in his book.

4. Other Issues

There are a few other issues that stood out in this essay. First, it is heteronormative. Banks only explores the racial dynamics of heterosexual marriage. That does not undermine the article, but it is unclear whether his conclusions have meaning beyond that specific context.

Furthermore, with respect to the claim that black women would gain leverage over black men if they considered nonblack partners, Banks does not address the possibility that white men could gain a similar type of leverage over black women who sought white male partners. If Banks is correct in his depiction of relationships as sites of bargaining, then the small percentage of white men who actually want to marry black women could presumably have leverage over black women, who, facing a short supply of black men, sought to marry outside of their race.

Moreover, a number of sociological reasons explain lower rates of marriage among blacks. Banks, however, suggests a singular "fix" for this reality: interracial marriage. It is highly doubtful that Banks' singularly focused solution could actually reverse or even impact at all such a multidimensional social trend. Also, if the solution is this simple, then one wonders why black women had not thought of or pursued it themselves. Actually, they have pursued this option and many others -- including remaining unmarried.

Finally, some of Banks' arguments are disturbing from a class perspective. Saying that professional black women who marry less wealthy men are marrying "down" depicts a class hierarchy that devalues poor folks.

I am not sure how much ground the final product will cover, but based on this short preview, Banks should certainly receive a lot of attention.

UPDATE: I edited the original post to add a couple of observations in the last section.


Infidel753 said...

Banks cites studies of Internet dating websites for the proposition that black women are the least desired partners of nonblack men.

Assuming this conclusion is valid, it's only half of the question. It does seem broadly true that, all other things being equal, most people find people of their own race somewhat more sexually attractive than they find people of other races, and Banks's conclusion would be just one case of that. However, what if most black women similarly just find black men somewhat more sexually attractive than men of other races? That would explain why they haven't so far sought out inter-racial marriage in large numbers, but it also suggests that that situation isn't likely to change, whatever the "economic" arguments.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Yes - Infidel. Economic theory cannot explain the totality of human behavior -- especially in something so emotionally, culturally and psychologically driven as "love."

Matt P. said...

Just another topic where I know more than you Darren. ;-)


Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Matt - I assume that post is spam. It has all of the indications -- a cheesy, short (and false) comment, followed by a link.

Matt P. said...

Well actually it is my wedding site.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Ah - so sweet. Congrats!!!!!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

PS: I hope you didn't need a law professor to encourage you to get married...that would be pretty bad. :)

Matt P. said...

Well even worse. You know me Darren, I convened a tribunal comprised of Yoo, Barnett, and Epstein. :-)

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Ouch! Some people really should not get involved in romantic discourse. Good luck.....to your wife! lol.

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