Maybe it's the season, but as I've attended gatherings around Washington in recent weeks, I've noted a new wrinkle in that perennial brushfire of cocktail chatter: the status of black male and female relationships in Washington.
While single women have long had to contend with the shortage of single, compatible men and have adapted by such strategies as coming up with different men for different occasions, it's surprising to hear men increasingly express their frustrations that despite the disproportionate number of women here, they are not finding what they are seeking in women either.
A group of thirtyish, college-educated men, talking recently in a Southwest high-rise, bemoaned their disappointment at such length that one half-joked that he was "going to look for a woman down in the South Seas." Another man admitted that he finds a lot of "sadness, emptiness, frustration and disappointment" among his male friends over the women they have found in Washington.
When you think of all this, its easy to get the impression that the more things change, the more they stay the same: Now men are as disconcerted about relationships as women. This casual observation found some reinforcement when I talked recently with California sociologist Robert Staples, whose most recent book is "Black Masculinity."
Staples concluded that while more women have more freedom and greater expectations, American men have not changed very much. Both white and black men "still marry for sex appeal and a pleasing personality, and want deference, freedom and autonomy," he says. "The stability of marriage is based on subordination of women."
Such attitudes make bigger trouble for black men, he goes on, because most of them lack the comparable social and economic standing of white men to back up macho demands. "Independence among black women is a cultural trait, while for white women, it's more of an ideological position," he said. "White men simply screen out the feminists and find women who feed into their demands." Black men, however, run head-on into black women's independence, with the result being more troubled relationships.
Dr. Staples delivered these ideas with the zing of authority, for he has written many articles and books on all aspects of relationships for more than 20 years.
I pointed out that I knew many exceptions to his statements, which seemed like overgeneralization to me. He allowed that there certainly were exceptions, but said that as a social scientist he was dealing in statistical aggregates.
I think all women who work, and their numbers are skyrocketing, have different tolerance levels for chauvinism, for example. Yet I agree that most black women, who worked due to economic necessity long before working became fashionable and necessary for other women, have an independence honed by greater burdens of social and economic injustice. Necessity is the mother of their independence.
But black men have their special burdens as well. Many are just emerging into the mainstream only to find their fragile footing badly threatened by the recession and Reaganomics. Their high level of frustration also is compounded by the changing expectations of women and their past cultural images of themselves. "There is still some impetus," said one man at a party, "to appear to be cavalier, uncaring and polygamous because that is the image of the 'down black dude.' To the degree, however, that black men participate and gain an economic foothold, the hero that emerges is one of a stable, coping individual."
The changing relationships between black men and women reflect changes occurring in the larger society. Staples calls these times "a relationship anarchy" and says "there are no rules." So there's a continuing need to examine the issues and to recognize that neither marriage nor relationships can survive either partner "subordinating the other" in the way Staples describes. And since no group can maintain a cultural vigor and move forward without resolving these problems of relationships, it's good to recall that it takes courage to overcome the frustration and fear.
Meanwhile, ideas such as Staples' provide food for thought--even if we don't swallow all of them whole hog.