When titles for this book were being considered, perhaps Why Middle Class Black Women Can't Find a Man and How the Whole Problem Could Be Solved if They Would Just Marry White Guys didn't have quite the ring the publisher was after.
But that's pretty much what Stanford Law professor Ralph Richard Banks' Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone (in stores this September) is all about. The provocative, headline-grabbing big question (inspired by a journalist's 2006 account of her conversation with an African-American sixth-grader) turns out to be there mostly to signal, "Attention, black bloggers, hosts of urban radio shows and white people, too: This is about to be a controversial analysis of marriage and race. Get ready for a lively debate with lots of interrupting."
By the time you reach the solution presented at the end of the book — that black women should shift the power balance by opening themselves to interracial marriage — you realize the author hasn't even attempted to explore, let alone answer, the cover's quandary.
Oh, and the argument that the subtitle promises to make about how blacks' marriage decline affects everyone? You can forget about that, too. Presumably added to broaden the scope of the book's appeal, the topic gets a few nods in the background chapters, "The Marriage Decline" and "What Has Become of Marriage?" with tacked-on attempts at inclusiveness such as, "With respect to marriage and childbearing, white follows black, a pattern that exemplifies the universality of the African-American family experience." Proclamations like this would probably be fascinating if they were fully unpacked, but alas, that's all we get.
It's safe to say that the solution offered up in the final chapter (marry interracially!) is less than universal. It's presented solely to black women looking to "shift the power balance" between themselves and black men. Thus, anyone else who picks up this book hoping to discover how the plight of the women whose stories animate its pages (39-year-old "smart, funny, well-educated, attractive" consultant Audrey, who says, "At this point in my life I thought I'd be married with children"; or Cecilia, a University of Michigan grad who struggles with her "blue-collar brother" husband, to name two) relates to their own lives will be left without much to take away. That is, unless you count new insights into the cultural forces that can make natural hair a challenge when dating black men and the nuances of "swag."
It's no wonder Banks tried to hide the real content of the book behind a decoy of a title. This project reveals itself to be the latest in a seemingly never-ending conversation analyzing the prospects of unmarried, professional, African-American women.
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.