Debate Magazine

Review of “Is Marriage For White People?”

By Gradmommy @cocomamamas

Writing this review is strange for me, and I’m not even sure it’s the best, practical decision for me to make. I am a student at the school at which Prof. Banks teaches, although I have never been his student and do not plan to. But we do know each other and are friendly. And me being a grad student writing a critical review of a professor’s first book might not be a good look. 

But I am really fascinated about books about black women, and middle-class blacks, and I want to understand this quasi legal, quasi social scientific line of research. And I want to say what’s in my head and heart, with the purest of intentions, without feeling constrained by status. So, here it is. I hope that in this writing, I have stayed true to a sense of professionalism. That is truly my goal.

I am not opposed to (one of) Prof. Banks’s ultimate ideas in Is Marriage for White People?: interracial marriage is personally cool with me. I almost married a white man myself (although ultimately he didn’t want me.) I don’t believe that love – the inner emotion that knows no rational, the inexplicable tenderness and sense of shared fate – has a color.

But the title of Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone is a misnomer. Whether this is the fault of Prof. Bank’s is unclear; Toure’s latest writing debacle informed me that sometimes editors and publishers choose titles, not authors. But the book neither answers the question “is marriage for white people?” nor does it show “how the African American marriage decline affects everyone.” Even its most outrageous claim – that if (middle-class) black women began marrying outside of the race more, then more black people would marry each other, reversing the marriage decline – is not well enough reasoned through to really get folks into a tizzy (he devotes only 2.5 pages to this “paradox.) What the book does do, amongst other things, is belie a certain post-racial mindset and classist rhetoric that actually has little chance of bringing black people together. Most likely it will tear us apart.

The book really attempts to answer this question, found on page 13: “Why are middle-class black men and women so much less likely than other middle-class Americans to marry or stay married?”  While the question assumes a comparison with all non-black people, Prof. Banks focuses almost exclusively on a comparison to middle-class Whites. In addition, while Prof. Banks acknowledges “black men who are employed and economically stable are less likely to have ever married than white men with comparable incomes,” the book focuses almost exclusively on black women.

Imani Perry, in her review for the New York Times, sums up the good parts of this book. What is best about it is the amount of information it pulls together to describe the state of black marriage:

He correctly notes that while divorce is common in the United States, and while out-of-wedlock birth is increasing across demographic groups, marriage remains a social ideal and status marker in American culture. He writes that African-Americans value marriage as much as other groups, despite the statistics, but that the impediments to marriage for black people are daunting and multifaceted.

Black women significantly outperform black men in high school and college. As a result, the black middle class is disproportionately female and the black poor are disproportionately male, and the gap is widening. Extraordinary rates of incarceration for black men, and the long-term effects of a prison record on employment, exacerbate this situation. Banks refers to studies indicating that “in evaluating potential mates, economic stability still matters more for African-Americans than for other groups.” Yet they may never find that security, and therefore never marry.

She also provides what she considers to be the primary shortcoming of the book: “But given that Banks identifies a devastating social reality for black men as the foremost explanation for low African-­American marriage rates, you might expect a logical first-order solution to address that reality,” instead of his conclusion that black women should marry interracially (“marrying out”) instead of marrying working class black men (“marrying down”). She also correctly points out that the book is heterosexist in its orientation.

While I think Perry is right in pointing out these two shortcomings, I think the book has even more serious problems, again in its orientation to the social world. In short, Banks relies on a heavily post-racial classist meme to build his argument.

Banks’ post-racial orientation is clear in how he either handily dismisses racism as an important consideration in the lives of middle-class blacks or ignores it altogether. Banks consistently makes comparisons between the black middle class and the white middle class, despite his early acknowledgment that the black middle class is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the white middle class (p. 10). He states the material differences between the two groups, but fails to address one of the most salient difference between the groups that likely contributes to why black women do not marry outside of their race as often: the heightened sense of racism the black middle class continues to experience. There is so much scholarship on this issue – Hochschild’s Facing Up To the American Dream  and Feagin’s Living with Racism immediately come to mind – that his failure to acknowledge it is puzzling. He states that black women should be marrying out more than they do given they are “much more likely than black men to interact with members of other races at school or work” (p. 118). But he ignores possibility – and the research that provides evidence – that middle class blacks actually report more racist experiences, and in turn, exhibit a stronger racial identity.

His post-racial orientation is also illuminated when he finds preoccupation with black men in the minds of black women to be “remarkable” (p. 119), especially in areas where black people are a tiny fraction of the population. He says that situations like the black women’s experiences living in Phoenix, AZ as only five percent of the population, as shown in Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan’s bestseller and movie, should have struck readers and movie watchers as strange, since the women left “unexplored 95 percent of the black population” (p. 119).

Yet his incredulousness is hard to understand. He states “what fuels African American’s distrust of whites is a painful past” (p. 149). But this is simply not true. What fuels black people’s distrust and discomfort with whites is a painful present. Prof. Banks lives in the same lily-white suburb that I do, and cannot be unaware of the racial stress that we, as black people in a white world, live under every day. We live in the same suburb where the police chief three years ago, not thirty, famously declared, after a rash of robberies, that her officers should stop black people “in a congenial way” in order to find out who they are. We live in the same suburb where the school district has an abysmal record of educating black children, where 50% of the black children in the district are in special education, and the API gap is over 200 points for middle-class black and middle-class white kids. Black people do not need to look to the past to feel anger, resentment, and bitterness about race. These things are happening all over this country right now.

Yet Prof. Banks declares that “Lift Every Voice And Sing” will “mean nothing to [his] sons” because “the suburbs of Northern California are the only home [his] children have ever known” (p. 165). Why? In his post-racial society, “the opportunity for the next generation to choose their racial identity is apparent more now than ever” (p. 165). In Prof. Banks’ world, even the one-drop rule doesn’t truly apply anymore (p. 164). But Prof. Banks seems dreadfully ignorant of one thing that his boys will never be, and never have the option to be: white.

While the naïve post-racialism hurt my head, Prof. Banks’ classism hurt my heart. At the core of his argument that black women should marry “out” instead of marrying “down,” Banks perpetuates the myth that individual values follow individual class. In discussing the importance of a values-match in marriage, Banks quotes an interviewee who is college and law school educated and married a non-college educated man. She states that racial background does not matter as much as “the values that led you to make the choices you made” (p. 105). The assumption underlying this statement is that to go or not to go to college is a choice, and a choice that defines one’s commitment to education. Banks uses this couple’s experience to say that having such a “mismatch” means that couples cannot understand each other, or “share their deepest hopes, aspirations, and fears” (p. 106). According to Banks, this wife completed college, and the husband did not, due to a difference in values and discipline, a difference that made it impossible to see eye-to-eye:

For how could a [non-college educated husband] understand the importance his wife placed on their children’s education if he has never aspired to graduate college, much less law school? … [This wife] valued education more than [her husband] did; that’s why she summoned the discipline to finish college and law school.” (p. 106)

This annoys me for two reasons. One, I came from a parent who had college experience and one who did not. My non-college experienced parent had no problem “understanding” the importance of education. To suggest otherwise is completely ignorant. Sometimes people just make different decisions. They can understand why others made a different decision.

Two, scholars have long ago disentangled values from class culture. The “culture of poverty” argument – that poor people’s situation is caused by their individual morals and values – has been so thoroughly dissected that it pains me to even have to bring it up. Especially because we know that poorer people value education as much as affluent people (see, Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods and Home Advantage), and how much people value education varies even within class. Especially because we know that poor people hate the violence and lawlessness in their neighborhoods. Especially since we know that poorer people want the same good outcomes for their children as do more affluent people.

The behaviors exhibited by members of different classes are not different because of divergent values, but because of divergent experiences. Culture is in direct conversation with structure; Ann Swidler famously described culture as a “toolbox” in which options for behavior are located, options that are constantly changing. Our options are shaped by our past experiences and our future opportunities, not by our values. Poor and working-class children do not attend college at lower rates because they don’t care about education; they attend college at lower rates because their K-12 schooling is insufficient and college is not presented as an option. Intergenerational poverty does not occur because parents pass down certain values to their children. It occurs because, as Leibow famously showed in Tally’s Corner (which I’m reading now), “the son goes out and independently experiences the same failures, in the same areas, and for much the same reasons as his father” (quoted from Steinberg’s excellent article on the myth of the culture of poverty).

In my own work looking at people who have experienced social mobility, I have seen almost unanimously that those who “make it” did so not because their values were so different from those around them, but because there was an opportunity that they had the good fortune – and sometimes above average intellect or talent – to come across. Whether it was a teacher paying special attention to a little black girl as it was in my case, or an outstanding recreation center where a basketball coach went above and beyond the call of duty, or the opportunity to attend a good charter or boarding school, it wasn’t the fact that some eight-year-old valued education more than the next eight-year-old. It was the opportunities presented to the former eight-year-old that made the difference.

And while Prof. Banks is willing to attribute poor or working-class black peoples experiences to their values, he isn’t willing to do the same thing for men in general. “Why cash in when you can continue to play?” (p.55) asks Prof. Banks when discussing why so many black men are in simultaneous intimate relationships. But he acknowledges that these behaviors are not due to cultural values, or “deviant values” as he calls them. No, black men are only doing what any other man in their situation would do (p. 57); “Why have one woman when you can have ten?” In the case of men acting a fool, it’s not about values; it’s about opportunities. So why don’t poor and working class folks get the same pass?

The book has other shortcomings in my opinion, including the selective use of studies that bolster the argument while systematically ignoring studies that provide alternative explanations (e.g. this article on how marriage is not the important issue to look at when considering the black middle class family life, written four years ago and in a prestigious sociology journal), many conjectures that have shaky data to back them up (e.g. the use of internet dating site data to discern the racial preferences of the general dating population (p. 124-5)), and the use of a suspect recruitment strategy for interviewees (“interviewees came disproportionately from schools that [he] attended and more of them were lawyers than a random sample…would have yielded” (p. 185)).

I admit that I didn’t start the book feeling good about it given the multitude of reviews prior to the book’s release were not encouraging. I thought by reading the book myself I would come to a different perspective than many other reviewers, considering I study middle-class black life and am both a doctoral and law student, and can perhaps understand the research a little better than most. And perhaps I did. But the main draw of this book is its controversy, not its scholarship. I feel really sorry to say that.

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