Tom ponders a controversial book on African Americans and marriage

One of the more provocative book titles this year is Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone. Written by Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks, the book answers its own question with a depressing, "Mostly, yes," but adds a slightly hopeful, "But it doesn't have to be," at the end. Somewhat surprisingly, it is the "hopeful" part that is causing the most controversy.

Banks says he got the idea for the book from a 2006 Washington Post article on the importance of fatherhood. In the article, a 12-year-old says, bluntly, "Marriage is for white people." Banks went out and did the research, and his findings are grim. Among them:

• While the marriage rate has declined across the board for all Americans over the past half-century, it has fallen off the table for black Americans.

• Black women are half as likely as their white counterparts to be married, and twice as likely to never marry.

• There is a success gap between black men and black women that is widening with each passing year. Twice as many black women graduate from college as black men.

• Half of all college-educated black wives have less-educated husbands, and these husbands often earn substantially less than their wives.

Add to that the other widespread problems in the black community—the precipitous decline of the black nuclear family during the past 50 years; the fact that fewer than half of black males graduate from high school; that one in four black males will go to jail at some point in his life (one in 10 is in prison right now); and the bleak statistic that 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers—and a daunting picture emerges.

What makes the marital gap especially pernicious is that black women are the least-likely group to marry interracially. There is an undercurrent (often unspoken) among black women of a need to "rescue the brothers," and in doing so, save the race. Banks, who is black and married (to a black woman), points out that this loyalty to race when it comes to marriage (or even relationships) is clearly a one-way street, because many black men show little or no racial preference when it comes to women. As Cleavon Little stated so eloquently in Blazing Saddles, "Hey, where da white women at?"

Nobody really disputes Banks' evidence. Where he is getting heat is in his proposed solution to the situation: Banks suggests that black women should cast a wider net. Marry down, providing you can find a guy who isn't perpetually butt-hurt because his wife earns money than he. (This is probably easier said than done, considering the fragility of male egos among all colors.) Or marry a white guy.

Responses range from suggestions that white men don't find black women attractive to charges that black women who marry white men are race traitors. There are even claims that interracial marriages rekindle visions of master and slave.

I gave Banks' book to one of my former players, whom I will call Maria to protect her identity as best I can. She's half-black and half-Hispanic, and she grew up in one of the meaner parts of Tucson. To say that she has had a hard life would be a massive understatement. There are some people who will ultimately fail in life, no matter how many breaks they get along the way. And there are others who will succeed, no matter how many obstacles are placed in their path. Maria is the poster child for the latter group.

After graduating from Green Fields Country Day School, she got a scholarship to a good college in one of the Four Corners states. She never came within a mile of having a boyfriend when she was in high school, but I used to joke with her that when she went away to college, all the cowboys would be buzzing around her, finding her ... exotic. I even made up an imaginary boyfriend for her, a guy named Colt. (I then added a rival for her affection, this one named Cody.)

She read the book, and we talked about it. She had heard some of the stats before in one of her sociology classes. (Oh, yeah, she graduated in four years—which is a feat in itself—and she did it despite changing her major halfway through. She'll be starting graduate school in the spring.)

I had given her the book out of genuine concern, not because it would have a definitive impact on her life, but so that she would be informed about what she might face. She nonchalantly mentioned that when she was away at college, she met a guy who happens to be black and who is also an Air Force pilot.

I asked if he's the one, and she smiled.

"He might be. I know he's no scrub."

I made her give the book back.

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