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Race, Marriage and Class Discussed

Wednesday, Nov 16, 2011

USC Center for Law, History and Culture sponsors event

-By Gilien Silsby

Race, marriage and class were discussed and debated recently at a USC event featuring Ralph Richard Banks, author of the provocative new book, Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.

Sponsored by the USC Center for Law, History and Culture, Banks, a law professor at Stanford University, was joined by Kim Shayo Buchanan and Camille Gear Rich of the USC Gould School of Law, Melissa Murray of the University of California, Berkeley, and Douglas NeJaime of Loyola University. Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks, the author’s sister, moderated the discussion.Race, marriage and class were discussed and debated recently at a USC event featuring Ralph Richard Banks, author of the provocative new book, Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.

“This proved to be a fascinating conversation with voices coming from many different angles,” said Nomi Stolzenberg, co-director of the USC Center for Law, History and Culture.

In his book, Banks examines race, gender and class among African Americans, and highlights the economic and cultural factors that have contributed to the declining marriage rates among African Americans, as well as people of other races. Banks interviewed more than 100 African-American women about their relationships, synthesizing research from law, sociology, economics, psychology and history.

Left To Right: Ariela Gross, Richard Banks, and Nomi Stolzenberg.

At the USC discussion, as in his book, Banks attempted to answer the question: Why are black women half as likely as white women to be married and three times as likely as white women never to marry?

“A pivotal factor in the African-American marriage decline is that as black women have moved ahead, black men have fallen behind,” Banks said. “One in four black men will spend time in prison, and only half as many black men as women will graduate college. As a result, there are too few black men who are able and willing to be the sort of husbands that black women deserve…. Today 70 percent of African-American children born to unwed mothers.”

Banks’ book has been met with controversy and criticism.  That controversy was aired at the USC discussion, which raised challenges to Banks’ position from a variety of perspectives, including ones that called into question the ongoing validity of civil marriage and urged the consideration of alternatives to the traditional family.

Banks’ recommendation –black women should consider marrying outside their race for the sake of themselves and the African American community at large – prompted an outpouring of discussion and criticism from the other panelists and the audience.

Buchanan, an expert on race and gender studies, raised questions about gender and class.  She wondered why Banks argues that marriages are at risk when wealthy black women “marry down” to poorer black men while advocating that black women improve their marriage prospects by dating wealthier white men. “Why are marriages at risk when black women ‘marry down’, but not when white men do it?” Buchanan asked.

Given that Banks attributes the decline of black marriage to a demographic “man shortage” within the African American community, “would the proposed solution - wealthy black professional women marrying non-black men - really make a difference to the demographics of the community as a whole?” she said.

Banks’ examples of the African American women who should marry out  - lawyers and investment managers - actually form a tiny proportion of the black community, likely falling in the top 6 percent of all American income earners, Buchanan pointed out.  She doubted that their marital choices would make much difference to any gender imbalance within the black community overall.

Gear Rich said that middle-class black women who marry African-American men outside their class may actually help sustain the black community and subsidize these men as they “make the leap to middle class status.” Gear Rich, an expert on race discrimination, explains, “Banks criticizes Black women for offering a helping hand, but they may be playing an institutional function in the Black community that other social actors are either unwilling or unable to play at this point in time.”

To watch the discussion on YouTube, please go to:

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