Myth-Busting the Black Marriage 'Crisis'

The percentage of black women 35 and older who have never been marrieddrops to 25 percent. (Thinkstock)
The percentage of black women 35 and older who have never been marrieddrops to 25 percent. (Thinkstock)

When it comes to marriage in the African-American community, two black scholars have a message: The mainstream media's analysis is divisive and defeatist. We're slammed with panic-inducing statistics because fear sells. And we need to stop buying into it.

Their research, recently published in Empower Magazine, is an answer to the onslaught of gloom-and-doom news about black women's struggles to find black mates. You know, the coverage that's oozing with desperation and grounded in seemingly alarming numbers. Take a Washington Post piece from 2006:

In the Washington area, there are 83 single black men for every hundred single black women … For Robyn and black women like her — who see their fates intimately bound to black men — life means strategizing and dreaming beyond the numbers in a world where it seems the ground has shifted under their feet. 


If that wasn't enough melodrama to make you want to go watch Waiting to Exhale while commiserating with Asian men and researching adoption, there was the December 2009 ABC News/Nightline story "Single, Black, Female — and Plenty of Company." And during the April 2010 "Nightline Face-Off: Why Can't a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?" "expert" comedians and commentators set up a blame game between the genders.

After the alarms about the "crisis" sounded, the headline-grabbing solutions rolled in. In a Washington Post piece, an author urged black women to save themselves by dating men of other races. Ralph Richard Banks has proposed the same fix to the "black marriage dilemma" in his upcoming book, "Is Marriage for White People?"

The coverage of this issue is excessive, and the tone and content can be unproductive. That's clear. But we can't question the alarming statistics that drive the discussion. Right?

Actually, we can. Enter Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., a Howard University professor and research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; and Bryant Marks, a psychology professor at Morehouse College and faculty associate at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.


Eye rolling over the excessive efforts to stir up panic over black marriage is nothing new. But these two have the expertise — and, more important, the incentive — to challenge the very assumptions that drive the discussion. They've looked at the same old data (from the census and American Community Surveys), but through a different lens. It's one that's not set on manufacturing a catastrophic picture of black people and marriage. In fact, they consider it a personal mission to do the opposite.

Toldson and Marks say that the statistics about single black women and "undesirable" black men have been intentionally presented in the worst-possible light. Their work — they call it "myth busting" — tells a different story.


Most black women do get married. The ABC News/Nightline article "Single, Black, Female" presents this stat: "42 percent of U.S. black women have never been married, double the number of white women who have never tied the knot." True, say Toldson and Marks. But their independent analysis of American Community Surveys data from 2000 to 2009 shows that among black women 35 and older, the percentage that have never been married drops to 25 percent, meaning that a solid majority (75 percent) of black women get married before they turn 35.

"The often-cited figure of 42 percent of black women never marrying includes all black women 18 and older," Toldson says. "Raising this age in an analysis eliminates age groups we don't really expect to be married and gives a more accurate estimate of true marriage rates." Same data, but significantly less scary.


"Educated" doesn't have to mean "alone." The researchers also take on the claim that "marriage chances for highly educated black women" are grim. While the numbers may be different in other urban areas, at least in the two major cities Toldson and Marks examined, education significantly increased a woman's chances of tying the knot.

In Washington, D.C., 36 percent of those with only a high school diploma, 47 percent of those with a college degree, 59 percent of those with a master's or professional degree and 62 percent of those with doctoral degrees are married. There's a similar pattern in Atlanta. So much for having to choose between a diploma (or four) and a husband.


The ratio of unmarried black women to black men is not dismal. Toldson recalls talking to three women in Atlanta who offered up three different black male-to-female ratios for the city: 1-to-10, 1-to-17 and 1-to-22. "No one could tell me the origins of these numbers, so I decided to do some research and figure out where they were coming from," he says.

"I analyzed the census data, and even when I used the strictest criteria, I still wasn't getting above 1-to-2. The artificial ratios are just floating around out there. I want people to understand that [that ratio] is still not easy for you — I'll concede that — but it's not anything absurd."


There are more "successful" black men than you think. Toldson and Marks respond to the claim that, based on the percentages of those who are without a high school diploma, unemployed or incarcerated, nearly half of all black men in America are unworthy of marriage because of their socioeconomic characteristics.

For this statement to be true, they point out, there would have to be zero overlap in those categories. That obviously isn't the case (70 percent of high school dropouts serve time in prison). The researchers also challenge the idea that there aren't enough "successful" black men for the women who want them.


Yes, black women have outpaced black men in receiving degrees since the 1960s. But more black men than black women still earn more than $75,000 a year, and black men are twice as likely to earn more than $250,000. Toldson says that we should look more broadly at success among black males, acknowledging that education doesn't necessarily determine income. The result is a picture of the number of available "successful" black men that's much less dim.

Not all "successful" black men marry women of other races. To challenge what they call the "cultural myth" that successful black men are likely to be unavailable to black women because they prefer to marry outside their race, Toldson and Marks point out that among married black men with a personal income above $100,000, 83 percent have  black wives. Among married black men with college degrees, 85 percent have black wives. Toldson cautions against exaggerating a behavior that we might see as negative, when in reality it occurs a small percentage of the time.


Their findings come with a call to action: First, scrutinize the agenda of the media. "Entrepreneurial elements of America have found a variety of creative ways to benefit financially from black females' anxieties at the expense of black male egos," Toldson says. "If you can show somebody that there is a really devastating problem, they'll pay more attention to you. If you have something that you think will correct the problem, they'll pay attention to that." Think Ralph Richard Banks and his book on the "interracial fix" for black marriage. "He's not going to show you any evidence to the contrary because he wants his book to be bought," Toldson says.

Second, aim to keep the dialogue positive. "Marriage between black women and black men is an issue right now. We're not pretending it's not an issue, and we really do need to have a healthy discussion about that," Toldson concedes. But he blames the tenor of the media-fueled dialogue for making things worse, and encourages us to structure debates in a way that does not denigrate black men or dispirit black women.


Finally, the researchers ask us to rid ourselves of a "black equals bad" mentality. "We believe negative things about ourselves more than other people believe negative things about themselves," Toldson told The Root. "People put things out there without any perspective. And as black people, we accept that. We operate under the assumption that if it's black, it's negative, but if you take an unbiased look at the data, you'll often find that things aren't as bad for black people as they think, and you'll also find some things that are positive."

Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor at The Root.

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