That too many African American children are growing up in single-parent households isn't news. But Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks has initiated a provocative debate that analyzes why black women are the most unpartnered group in our society.
In his new book, Is Marriage for White People?, Banks explains: "The percentage of black children born to unwed parents exceeds 70 percent not because single women are getting pregnant more often, but because black women are so much more likely to be single. Unwed childbearing is yet another consequence of the marriage decline."
In other words, the prevalence of unwed black mothers is not attributable to differing sexual mores between whites and blacks, but rather to the fact that black women are living what Banks describes as a segregated existence. Asians, Latinos, and even black men are much more likely to marry outside their race. But black women, according to Banks, face social pressure to marry within their race - they are encouraged to marry "down" before they marry "out." And those social pressures do not apply to black men.
"Pressures to marry within a group are receding for all groups, including black men," Banks told me. "But for black women, they are seen as having a special responsibility to black men and to restore the black family, but those efforts are counterproductive and have been unsuccessful.
"They end up not marrying out but within the race. . . . A majority of college-educated black women who do marry marry a less-educated man."
Typically, Banks notes, the more educated a woman, the more likely she will marry. But that's not so with African American women. They're dealing with a shortage of potential male partners, which Banks surmises is caused by a high incarceration rate, interracial marriage (which he writes "depletes the pool of men for middle-class, college-educated black women"), and economic trends that have benefited women more than men (and that are much more pronounced among African Americans).
By his logic, the first family is unique in a way I didn't appreciate before reading the book. Regarding President and Michelle Obama, Banks writes: "As African Americans, they are extraordinary in the most ordinary way: They are a married couple raising their children together."
Banks' work was an eye-opener for me, and probably the sort of dissertation on a touchy subject best coming from someone within the community. Where many, including Obama himself, have exhorted black men to assume greater responsibility for their children and the state of the African American family, Banks sheds rare light on the equally significant plight of black women. Their problem isn't so much frequent pregnancy as a dearth of appropriate partners.
Which gets to the most controversial aspect of his assessment:
"At the core of the problem is that nearly twice as many black women as black men graduate from college. So what are educated black women going to do when there are only half as many black men in their college classrooms or professional environment?" he wondered during our conversation last week.
So what's the answer?
Banks told me that if he had a daughter, he'd advise her to look outside her race. "It is amazing it hasn't happened more," he said. "Black women have the thinnest pool of partners within their race."
The blogosphere is alive with criticism of his counsel that black women be more open to partners of different backgrounds.
"One of the points of the book is to undo that problem and give black women the freedom to make decisions that are right for them. That will often entail crossing the race lines," he said.
This isn't just a discussion about the black community. After all, the book's subtitle is How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.
"Part of the reason I wanted to write the book was to change the conversation - to enrich and deepen it," he told me. "It is a sad commentary that if it were written by a [white person] it would not be so well received.
"The same forces that undermine marriage for African Americans are actually in operation throughout American society and are reshaping or undermining marriage for everyone," Banks said. "One of those forces is that men are doing less well relative to women, and we see it starkly among African Americans but also among whites. . . . The economy has disproportionately hurt men."
I wondered why the title wasn't Is Marriage ONLY for White People?
He said the title was meant to be ambiguous. "It asks, is marriage for white people, and it also asks whether marriage is for white women," Banks said. "The trends are moving in the same direction for blacks and whites but more pronounced for blacks."