Outlook: Lower Marriage Rates Among Blacks

Joy Jones
Monday, March 27, 2006; 2:00 PM

"Marriage is for white people." That's what an African American sixth-grader said to author Joy Jones when she taught in a D.C. public school a few years back. Though the comment took her aback, she quickly realized that, at least statistically, the boy was right: According to the U.S. Census, African Americans have the highest unmarried ratio of any racial group in the United States. African American women are the least likely in our society to marry. Marriage rates for blacks have been declining since the 1960s. Blacks, in short, are the most uncoupled people in the country. Why is this the case, and what does it mean for marriage? Joy Jones was online Monday, March 27, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her article Sunday Outlook article, 'Marriage Is for White People' , ( Post, March 26, 2006 ), and the state of marriage in black America today.

The transcript follows.


Washington, D.C.: As a single 30 year old Black woman, I can definitely relate to some of the points in your article and have had discussions with my girlfriends on this very topic. However, when I hear stories about Black women being the least likely to get married, there seem to be some unstated presumptions and unanswered questions. For one, these stories seem to presume that the only viable option for a Black woman's husband is a Black man. Perhaps if Black women were more open to dating men of all races, suitable mates wouldn't seem as scarce. The questions I have are: Is there any indication that education level and/or income level make a difference in whether Black men and women are interested in marriage? Also, are Blacks in cities with significant Black populations more or less likely to get married (to a Black spouse) than Blacks living in cities with small Black populations?

Thanks for sharing your perspective!

Joy Jones: Hello, traditionally, the more income and education a woman had, the less likely she was to marry although that is not as rigidly true now as in used to be.


Washington, D.C.: Aren't you blaming black men for structural racism and other social forces out of their control? Frankly, the use of the slavery example was unfair because the racism was more overt, and today the same forces operate in a different way.

Joy Jones: Racism certainly is one factor, however, I also think there are actions individual men and women -- and groups of people working together -- can take to make improvements. Waiting on racism to go away might prove to be a very long wait. Also, I've also written about issues pertaining to women's 'stuff' - see "Why Are Black Women Scaring Off Their Men?" which is on numerous web sites or see my own:


Washington, D.C.: While I appreciate the mostly sobering and even-handed take on this issue, I think the generalizations you offer about what makes young Black men not marriageable-- being on the "down low," the desire to be players, being childlike, not having adequate employment, etc-- are part of the problem. It is this widely-held cynical view, I think, that prevents many young Black women from having a healthier attitudes about entering the kinds of relationships that might lead to marriage. Instead exploring friendships with a sense of wonderment and discovery, they present a check-off list of must-haves and must-not-haves. My observation is that "I got mine-- what can you offer me?" attitude misses the boat of sharing life goals, common interests and passions, and supporting each other's personal aspirations-- the components of a relationship that will far outlast obtaining social status and material possessions.

Joy Jones: Your point is well-taken. I think because women so often fall into the role of caretaker - and sometimes a taken-for-granted caretaker, some women go to great lengths to avoid being caught in an untenable situation. It's said that it's more blessed to give than receive -- it's also good to be able to give AND receive.


Reston, Va.: Thank you!!! You have put my personal feelings as a woman out there with great sensitivity. I'm not opposed to getting married, but my life is full and happy not being with the wrong person! I'm single, I'm successful, and I'm happy - what's wrong with that?

I think that many women share the feelings you write about, regardless of race. For example, I am an American of European, not African descent. Marriage is a partnership in so many ways, and I don't want to marry someone that won't be there in the rough spots as well as the smooth.


Joy Jones: Thanks for the vote of confidence and I applaud your happy state. I believe a happy couple starts with a happy individual - and you sound like one.


Woodbridge, Va.: As a happily married black woman I am offended by your comments about black men. Most of my friends are married to great guys. Black women are also accountable for the decline. I lot of women I have met are looking for something that doesn't exist. My mom always taught me to like someone for the way they treat me, not what kind of car or job they have. Her advice worked. Also please stop perpetuating the myth the black men are on the DL. I know many case of white men who are on the DL too! Advice for sisters, come as you are let go of the fake hair and the blond hairdos, bad attitudes and maybe you'll attract someone worth marrying.

Joy Jones: I'm glad to hear that your marriage and those of your friends are flourishing. I, personally, need to hear and see more couples like you. The community needs to know what you're doing right. Thanks.


Boston, Mass.: In light of your research and personal discussions, have you observed any factors that can be helpful to those who want to form and sustain meaningful, lasting marriages?

Joy Jones: Hmmm... I have seen some anecdotal information. Being in touch with real, live people who have healthy marriages helps. I think having others who help support the marriage increases the likelihood of success. A willingness to tackle the hard issues and to make sacrifices also seems key.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: Hi Joy. I am a single black female with three children. My children's father proposed to me and I initially accepted; however, now we are apart. I realized that I was not totally happy with the relationship. As I watch my children grow, I want the very best for them. We as people, no matter the color, need to try to do what's best for our children. I often wonder if arranged marriages; where the family selects the mate, can work, why not one where the individual parties have known each other for a while. I think I'm going to work on my relationship and get married to my children's father - I have to realize that no one is perfect. Although my mate may have faults, I need to try to concentrate on my own faults, stay spiritually grounded - and maybe the relationship will work.

Joy Jones: I think you're on the right track -- everyone has faults and you have to accept that as part of the package. I'm reminded of the proverb - keep both eyes open when deciding to get married, and keep one eye closed in order to stay married! It would probably benefit your children if you were to marry -- study after study shows that children generally do better when their parents are married.


Martinsville, Va.: Why is it that the young men today seem to expect their wives to financially support them instead of them trying to help out as a couple?

Joy Jones: I've been fortunate in that the men that I have dated have not had that mentality. However, my guess is perhaps that younger men may resent some of women's independence and successes in the workplace. As a result, they try to take advantage rather than compete with women. I wish instead, however, that could be a motivator to do better.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for the article. I'm single black 30-yr-old woman. I take major issue with the title. This may well be a popular sentiment in the most economically disadvantaged parts of our community where functional, successful marriage are virtually non-existent. But it is broadly stereotypical to imply that most/all black women or black folks in general associate marriage (or speaking articulately, or being intelligent) with being "white." I could not argue with the marriage statistics you cite. But my experiences talking with black women (co-workers, friends and associates) who cross socio-economic spectrum is that marriage is not that they think marriage is for white people, or even (when they're being totally honest) that men come with too much baggage in terms of children, poor health care, etc. (Sisters have their fair share of baggage, too, you know.) It seems instead that they can achieve their desired level or financial and material comfort and security by themselves. So the qualities in a potential mate that really matter (companionship, affection, etc) are much more ethereal and much much harder to pin down. You do mention this later in the article and I think it is by far the most insightful and accurate outlook.

Joy Jones: Okay, I'll take the hit for the title - or more accurately - the headline. It was designed to catch your attention not necessarily to sum up the story. And yes, most African Americans do not regard marriage as only the province of whites, but if trends continue, marriage may go the way of the rotary phone.


Alexandria, Va.: Completely unrelated to race, but on the desirability of marriage to women in general.

I have a friend who works (in DC) at a major international organization (a large international workforce) in a field which is not heavily gender-loaded in general. She has many male coworker who moved here with their wives and children. The wives, many of whom gave up a career back home to come here with their husbands, work part time or not at all, and simply do not have the opportunity to do otherwise. Her female coworkers are all single. We were discussing this the other day, and she couldn't think of one example of a woman who came here with her husband and children. Marriage often requires women to make sacrifices and give up opportunities that simply aren't required of men. In your article, you talk about women in their 30s who simply don't see what marriage has to offer them. This doesn't come as a surprise to me. The traditional benefits of marriage (long-term financial security for her and her children) is becoming less important as women are more financial self-secure (and less reliable with high divorce rates the disappearance of alimony), but many of the traditional sacrifices are still in place.

That "lovey-dovey stuff" has to be pretty good for it to be worth it.

Joy Jones: Some time ago, I read an article that noted that in all cultures where women are allowed to earn an income, divorce rates are higher than where women are not allowed to have money of their own. That tells me that when women are not bound by their lack of resources, they can make a decision not to be in a bad marriage. Marriage confers well-being for both males and females, but the greater benefits accrue to the husband. I'd like to see women able to enjoy the marriage experience more, too. It's certainly a tricky balance to negotiate the needs of your partner with your own. But when it works, it's a wonderful thing.


Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon, Ms. Jones.

Have you run into instances where there are whole families where no one has ever been married, and this spreads across generations?

Joy Jones: I personally do not know people like this, but I know that they exist. I have also heard from readers who said that although their parents divorced or never married, they are managing to hang in there with their own marriages.


Fairfax, Va.: I have read recently that for every one black male graduating college there are five black females graduating. I believe that 99% of woman (black, white, whatever) will not marry down in terms of education level. Is this a part of the problem?

Joy Jones: Among my female peers, most of them are willing and have dated men who either were less educated or earned less money than they did. I certainly have. I'm not going to reject a man with money - but that's not the only important quality. I think many men, however, prefer to couple with women who are less educated or who make more modest salaries.


Alexandria, Va.: What is the biggest driver of this trend, the fact that African American women largely don't need to be married to achieve their goals, or the fact that few of their peers are married, and there's no desire to be the only one?

Joy Jones: I think because so many of the norms have changed, it's hard for men or women to know how to negotiate relationships. Women have changed a lot in the last 30 years, men less so.


Reston, Va. - I'm married, too!: Hi Joy, I'm a 30-year old black woman and I've been happily married for 5 years. I also have a wonderful social network of girlfriends - the vast majority of which are also married (15 out of 20 women aged 30-36). We are married to wonderful, God-fearing, professional -black- men and are enjoying life! Please post this as one more indication that there are young, professional black couples who are thriving in marriage!

Joy Jones: You go, girl! We need to hear your story and tell us how it's done. Kudos to you!


Anonymous: I curious about what examples of white marriages the kids you taught referenced? Where were they getting their ideas from? TV? Just seeing white couples around town? Teachers?

Joy Jones: I think the boy who made the comment, "Marriage is for white people" was commenting on the relationships he saw around him (probably few married couples and a number of them divorcing) and only seeing white married couples on TV. Just to let you know what followed, I brought in a panel of married couples to that class to talk to the students and that program was well-received.


Laurel, Md.: I believe we should start with friendships first. My husband and I met in college and hung with the same group of friends. We became a couple later. We have been friends for 27 years, but married for 21! Infatuation and lust last briefly, but friendship can last forever!

Joy Jones: You're a wise woman. Friendship is a treasure.


Washington, D.C.: I've found that the men I dated in the past and some men friends that I know have are stuck between their two wants. On the one hand, they don't want an "independent" woman who doesn't want anyone taking care of her financially. And on the other, the men don't want a stay-at-home wife because they see what can happen in a divorce. How can these men walk such a fine line?

Joy Jones: That's just human nature - I think a lot of women want the security and stability and social status of marriage AND the freedom and unencumbrance of being single. Everybody wants to have their cake and eat it, too.


Laurel, Md.: Being a 23-year-old virgin I am really seeing a lot of things in the dating scene that can relate so much to your article. We are turning into a society that wants what marriage brings but not the commitment.

Joy Jones: Marriage brings commitment, yes, but if you're not careful, it brings a whole host of knotty issues that one hadn't counted on. For me, I find that part scary. It makes me ask God -- "If you want people to do this, why make it so hard?" So far, I haven't gotten an answer.


Boston, Mass.: What? Upper Marlboro said: My children's father proposed to me and I initially accepted; however, now we are apart. I realized that I was not totally happy with the relationship. As I watch my children grow, I want the very best for them.

Why didn't she want what was best before she had children and get married? Or, if you have A child before getting married, maybe not a second AND a third before deciding whether or not you're happy in the relationship?

Joy Jones: At the risk of sounding hopelessly Victorian, I do feel women have gotten too 'free with the sexual goodies' in our relationships. And at the risk of sounding too wimpy, I DO understand that sometimes reason takes a backseat to lust.


Laurel, Md.: Hi, I read your article and shared it with some friends of mine. We are all kind of speechless, partly out of acknowledgment of the facts you shared but mostly out of the let down we each felt that such a bold and incendiary article never mentioned love. Is it fair to dismiss the state of marriage within the black community to a matter as mechanical as financial gain and gender? When do the considerations for things like love, faith, sincerity and sacrifice enter the discourse. Marriage after all is both a spiritual and physical commitment.

Joy Jones: Good point. I think most people are in love or believe they are in love when considering marriage, so I took that as a given. But what happens after that? Marriage does require faith, sincerity and sacrifice, qualities that are hard to cultivate and sustain -- and hard to know where to draw the line when they my be causing you to stay in a situation that strains your spirit.


Washington, D.C.: I've been co-habitating with a professional black man who, when we moved into together, said we would do this only if we were getting married. So, I did. Now seven years later he is not ready. What does one do when they do want to be married and they are a black female, they've done all the right things, and now marriage is out the window?

Joy Jones: I hate to be the one to say this -- but I don't think you did the right thing when you moved in with your guy. Move out. Then see if he's still serious.


Bethesda, Md.: I'm confused. Sometimes you suggest that black men want women who financially support them. In another comment you use anecdotal evidence to suggest that men want women who are less educated or make less money. Are these ideas in conflict?

Joy Jones: Generally speaking, it seems to me that men are more comfortable with women who earn less. But yes, there are those who are willing to take advantage of a woman who can support them. Like the flavors at the ice cream parlor, men come in all varieties.


Washington, D.C.: I would like to respond to the happily married woman in Woodbridge, Va. (??) that was offended by the comments being made. I would like to say that as a black woman I am extremely happy- ecstatic even that you and your friends are married to good men. I think you being offended is unfortunate- I don't think this discussion is meant to comment at all on men who commit to marriage and commit to family- it is meant to respond to the scarcity of men who make those same commitments. The best things you and your husband can do is role model to people who do not have the type of relationship that you have and role model to your children the love, respect, courtesy, compromise and caring that goes with being in a marriage- particularly with respecting each other's contribution to the marriage whether it be financial, physical, or emotional in nature. And show your children (BOYS and girls) that being responsible is the goal and being selective with whom you share your mind, body, and spirit is more important than they could even imagine. We have to teach our children first that there is quality in quality so that they learn to seek it when they don't have it and value it when they find it- i.e. commit to it!

Joy Jones: 'nuff said.


Silver Spring, Md.: I'm very surprised you didn't mention anything about the economic situation of unmarried women-- the poorest type of women. Often women who don't marry, particularly single mothers, are on public assistance. Why do you justify black women staying single when it's to their economic disadvantage to do so?

Joy Jones: In my article, I was focusing on middle class women, women similar to me. I'm not opposed to poorer women marrying if they are able to find suitable partners.

_______________________ Thank you all for joining us today.


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