Black women are sick to death of this topic, and understandably so. It’s been rehashed unsatisfyingly and, at times, infuriatingly, in recent years, peaking with a Nightline special, “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?” It was co-hosted by Steve Harvey. In the words of Melissa Harris Perry, “The serious, interesting and sensitive social and personal issues … were hijacked by superficial, cartoonish dialogue that relied heavily on personal anecdotes and baseless personal impressions while perpetuating damaging sexism.”
Is Marriage for White People? will have to answer to some of the same critiques, starting with the initial choice to dramatize the dilemma facing African-American women for whom “unmarried has become the new normal, single the new black,” and blaming the “problem” on simple individual choices, instead of a complex set of issues with many causes, effects and stakeholders.
But we can tire of the way the issue is framed without boycotting attempts to get it right. And there are chapters nestled in the middle of the book that should be applauded for accomplishing Banks’ stated goal: to tell the stories of single black women and “capture their lives as they experience it.” He explains that he supplemented personal stories with insights gained from literature, fusing insights from social science research and personal interviews.
In chapters 3 through 6: mission accomplished. Banks promises the reader to attempt to understand why so many black women are single by considering the challenges they face when looking for a mate. And he does that. These barriers are outlined in the chapters that follow: “The Marriage Decline,” “The Man Shortage,” “The Market,” “Power Wives” (income disparities within marriages) and “What About the Children?” (pregnancy out of wedlock).
There’s no sense that he has an agenda here. And the discussion avoids the combative or terribly oversimplified treatmentthat we’ve learned to anticipate. This section of the book feels like an earnest attempt to grapple with what’s going on in a way that honors the various forces that shape black women’s relationship choices.
It should have stopped there. Instead, after the three chapters exhaustively analyzing why black women don’t marry non-black men (or “marry out,” as the author calls it), more often the book lurches to the four-paragraph “provocative and paradoxical” conclusion that more black women should marry interracially. According to the book, this will alter the relationship market in ways that, counterintuitively, lead to more black men and women getting married.
Don’t ask for any more details. Suddenly, after all the detailed and heavily cited treatment the book has given to “the decline of black marriage,” we get an unsubstantiated, scarcely explained theory, stated as absolute fact.
And then it’s over.
In its best parts, this book is a sincere and intelligent offering to a conversation that’s often lacking in both sincerity and intelligence. But if its shallow solution is the most we can get from an undertaking that promises to serve as the “definitive guide to unprecedented shifts in the terrain of intimacy,” then “Is marriage for white people?” isn’t the only unanswered question this book raises.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a regular contributor to The Root.