In September, UrbanFaith columnist Jacqueline J. Holness wrote passionately about why she wouldn’t be reading Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks‘ new book, Is Marriage for White People? How the American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone. After receiving a complimentary copy of the book, I read it, then spoke to Professor Banks about its themes and the controversy surrounding them. We also talked about another book that deals with the decline in marriages. That book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, was written by the polarizing political scientist Charles Murray, who previously co-authored The Bell Curve. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CHRISTINE A. SCHELLER: You teach family law at Stanford Law School. What is the relationship between family law and the decline in marriage rates among African Americans that you talk about in your book?
RALPH R. BANKS: The book chronicles some of the changes that were part of the evolution we’ve seen in the last half century. The legality of birth control, abortion, laws regulating people’s intimate lives–those are all part of the master shift that led to people being less likely to marry and more likely to have relationships outside of marriage.
Do you want the law to encourage marriage?
That’s a difficult issue. It’s one of those areas where it’s not clear that we have the right tools to surgically repair what might be a social problem. The big divide in marriage now is between the economically disadvantaged who decide not to marry and whose children are in less stable circumstances and those who are affluent and tend to marry and have much more stable marriages. I don’t think we can easily move people from one category to the other. The best thing to do is to provide more of a safety net for children: improve their educational systems, provide pre-school, high-quality day care for families, even for those who can’t afford it. And then, try to create an economy in which more people are able to be successful. Those are the indirect solutions.
You wrote that in Sweden, people often don’t marry but have long-term committed relationships so their children grow up in more stable homes than some American children whose parents are married. Have you given any more thought to what it is that makes the Swedish arrangement successful?
Sweden is a whole different cultural setting. In the United States, we put a lot of emphasis on marriage. We’re a much more religious nation than a country like Sweden. Marriage is more revered culturally. That’s part of the difference between the U.S. and many of the Northern European countries.
Are there any lessons to be learned from these countries in creating more stable families whether or not parents are married?
The government should do more for those who are disadvantaged generally. It would be great to have a nation where it didn’t matter which school one went to because all the schools are great, where poor kids go to schools that are as good as the schools that the rich attend, where everyone has healthcare. These are issues that are hugely important in helping the next generation to thrive. Our approach in our nation is to privatize too much, so that it depends on your family and your family’s resources. Marriage decline among the poor, in particular, is just one consequence of the fact that privatization hasn’t worked for that segment of the population.
I read lot of compassion in the book, especially for the struggles black women have in the relationship market, that critics seemed to have missed.
Thank you. Most of the critics haven’t read the book. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think it’s utterly indefensible and so dismaying that people would write about something they haven’t read. Imagine if you were a teacher in a classroom and you gave students an assignment to review a book and they wrote about why they would not read the book, you would fail them. With blogging, that has become acceptable and I think that’s just bizarre.
Some black women who don’t want to read your book said they are tired of people like Steve Harvey, who you mentioned, telling them what is wrong with them and their lives.
I understand that.
You’ve been invited to speak to African American women’s groups, so obviously that is not the overall consensus. A Chicago Tribune article about one event said the majority of women in the audience appreciated what you had to say.
The women in that audience who read the book said it changed lives. It’s like global warming. People have been hearing about global warming for so long, they don’t want to hear anybody else talk about it. Actually, the information might be useful information for someone who wants to understand something.
Do you think it taps into pain and that explains some of the response?
It does. I think that explains a lot of it, but I think over time that’s going to change. The issues are tough. Black people say they want their issues to be treated seriously, but when the issues are treated seriously, people can’t take it. They’re so accustomed to sensationalism and superficial treatment that when something comes along, they’re actually too wounded or too resistant to acknowledge it and consider it. This happens with a lot of issues in society where they’re treated very superficially and people get upset by that. But then the reason they’re treated superficially in part is because the serious treatment is something that is not always easy to take. Frankly, it requires all of us to examine ourselves and to think more deeply about things that we might prefer to not think about.
One area of criticism was the suggestion that black women more seriously consider having relationships with men of a different race.
I don’t at any point suggest that black women should think more seriously about having [interracial] relationships. I don’t ever make a suggestion. I don’t ever offer advice. You’re getting that from people who, again, by their own admission haven’t read the book.
I got that sense from reading the book, whether you used the words directly or not.
This is the thing: there’s a genre of books, self-help books, and this is actually not a self-help book. This is a book for somebody who wants to understand some major changes in American society, with respect to marriage and family. That’s what this book does. That’s how I started writing the book, but we have such an anti-intellectual society that people don’t actually want to understand stuff. They just want to know, “What should I do?” So, the book has been sliding into the advice category, but in the actual writing of the book, I don’t say that.
But the reaction that you’re getting seems to indicate that people are, on some level, looking at it as a relationship manual.
I think people slide it into that, but this is not an advice book. It’s not an opinion book. It’s not a Steve Harvey book. This is a book that provides information based on actual research. It’s the most comprehensive distillation of the research ever on these issues. It’s written for a popular audience in a way that people will find accessible. It took an extraordinary amount of work to bring all this to bear. It’s hard to control how people construe it, especially when many of the people writing about it haven’t read it.
In the chapter on fears black women have about interracial relationships, particularly with white men, you discussed their concerns about having biracial children. One woman is quoted as saying to her white fiance, “If we have twins, one dark and one light, we’re putting the light-skinned one up for adoption.” As a white mother who gave birth to a biracial child, that was a very difficult thing for me to read. I thought it sounded incredibly racist.
I know it does. I was on a radio show in San Francisco and a black woman called in and said, “If my daughter married a white guy, I could understand that, but if my son married a white woman after all the energy we’ve put into him, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.” The next caller said, “This woman called in to say that and if she were white, we’d be ready to sign her up for the local Ku Klux Klan, but because she’s black everybody thinks it’s okay.” This is an honest story. There are lots of black people who feel that way.
I’ve experienced that anger.
So it’s not a surprise that people feel that way. I’ve had resistance even from family. One of my sisters, who’s since come to be a big champion of the book, basically said, “Why are you going to write about this stuff in a way that white people can read it.” There are a lot of things that we know and feel are true in our lives, but we don’t want other people to know about them. People don’t want to expose some of that, and it is difficult.
It’s our perspective at UrbanFaith that we need to be talking about these difficult issues in ways that aren’t polarizing.
With race, what typically happens is people prefer to have very superficial, simplistic, meaningless conversations rather than real ones. It’s kind of like your social friends rather than your real friends. You’re not actually revealing things that are deep and meaningful to social friends because once you do that, people are vulnerable. What a lot of people don’t want, frankly, is to be vulnerable to people of other races.
What has the reaction been to the chapter on the fear of interracial dating?
I don’t have a random sample, but the people who read it love it. That’s what they want to talk about, not only African Americans, everyone, because, again, these are issues that might arise in the context of African Americans, but they are actually universal issues about fear of the other. One of the points I make in that section is that black women in particular are asking themselves, “Will he accept me and will his family accept me.” For non-black men, there’s a similar worry: will she accept me and what will her family say?
continued on page 2