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Rick Banks: "Is marriage for white people?"
Stanford law professor tackles controversial topic
The marriage decline
Over the past fifty years, marriage rates have declined throughout the United States. Adults today are more likely to be unmarried than ever before. Intrigued by this development, Rick Banks professor at the Stanford School of Law set out to understand why this decline has occurred and how it has affected intimate life in America. Combining scholarly research with personal interviews, his book illuminates the changing terrain of intimacy by closely examining the group for whom the marriage decline is most pronounced – African-Americans.
The statistics help tell the story. African-Americans are the most unmarried group in the US. Today’s black women are three times more likely than white women never to marry. And when black women do marry, they often “marry down” with men who are less educated than they are. “Among college-educated black women who are married, over half of them are better educated than their husbands,” Banks says. Since “the economic premium of a college education has grown,” these women are more likely to out-earn their husbands as well.
“The pivotal factor here is that although women are doing better – which,” Banks stressed, “is a good thing – men are doing worse. And that’s especially the case for African-Americans.” Indeed, the national landscape for today’s black men is a bleak one. According to Banks, one in ten black men in their 20s or 30s is currently in prison, and estimates forecast that one in four will go to prison or jail at some point in their lives. “At the other extreme, nearly twice as many black women as men graduate from college. So women are moving ahead, and men are falling behind.”
This polarization led Banks to ponder a question that many consider to be controversial: If black women have the smallest pool of potential partners within their race, then why are they the least likely to marry outside of their race? Currently, less than 10% of black women marry outside of their race, the lowest percentage of any such group; black men are more than twice as likely to do so.
To answer this question, Banks combed through research from sociology, economics, history, and law, and interviewed black women across the country. The women he spoke with expressed an abiding anxiety surrounding social acceptance of interracial relationships and marriages. Interestingly, Banks’ research found that some of the pressures that most strongly dissuade black women from pursuing interracial relationships come from black communities. According to Banks, there remains a sense that women who “marry out” are “betraying the race and abandoning black men.” “We have burdened black women to the point where they feel they don’t have permission to expand their options” to other racial groups, Banks says. He urges them to consider marrying outside of the race, maintaining that “black women should have the freedom that others take for granted.”
Opening a conversation
Banks’ book has caused quite a stir, and critical responses have come from all sides. Some feminists have voiced concern with his failure to deconstruct the institution of marriage. “It’s understandable,” Banks says of this critique. “Marriage has historically been a means of disadvantaging, controlling, and circumscribing the lives of women. Many people think we should be critiquing marriage and trying to highlight alternatives – and this book doesn’t do any of that.”
Yet Professor Banks believes his work is feminist. Its ultimate goal, he says, is “to empower black women, to enable them to make the relationship choices that are best for them, and to not fall victim to the failings of black men.” Not everyone has accepted Banks’ message; he says that even some black women are uncomfortable with it. But he appreciates the productive potential of controversy. Says Banks, “A conversation exists where before there was silence.”
Professor Ralph Richard Banks is the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is also a Professor, by courtesy, at the School of Education and a 2008-2009 Faculty Research Fellow with the Clayman Institute. Professor Banks’ research addresses race and inequality issues across a variety of domains, from criminal justice to employment to the family. His November 2011 presentation on his new book, Is Marriage for White People?, was co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, and the Stanford Humanities Center.
Miranda Mammen is an undergraduate student at Stanford majoring in American Studies and a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.