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REVIEWING

Is Marriage for White People?

by Ralph Richard Banks


Dutton | 2011

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


author rick banks

Truths Told and Truths Untold


What is most interesting about reading books about the many problems still facing American blacks, is that the truths told are never quite as interesting as the truths untold. This book is a perfect example.

   First the truths told. Marriage as an institution has virtually collapsed for African Americans. As Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford University, writes in Is Marriage for White People? “The African American {marriage} decline is not limited to the poor. It now encompasses the middle and upper-middle class. Indeed, by some measures the racial gap in marriage is actually wider among the prosperous than among the impoverished.”

    Professor Banks concentrates his book on interviews with middle class black women, who he says are the most likely to be unwed of any group in the country (although I have read, and heard on television, many sources claim that the women in America most likely to never marry, or have children, are Jewish, followed by college educated African American women), contrasting them with their white counterparts, with only a passing nod to Hispanics and Asians.

But before he gets to his interviews, he offers us a brief look at what caused this great decline in marriage, which accelerated in the late 60s and early 70s. Under a section he entitles “Partial Explanation,” Professor Banks lists the destructive effects of slavery  and African culture. ”The idea here,” he explains,” is that the African societies from which the slaves were taken featured extended family structures in which marriage was less pivotal…the African culture explanation became popular during the 1970s.”

   He also cites deindustrialization, which has made so many black men unmarriageable and the criminalization of black males because of the so-called ‘War on Drugs.’

    As his Partial Explanation headline suggests, Professor Banks “partially” dismisses these theories. This is my first major disagreement with him. The attempt to boldly affirm the African influence in America, and especially on African American culture, had a profound impact. This influence was reinforced by the rise of Black Studies Departments and programs at almost every college and university where there were black students, and where Cultural Nationalism held considerable sway.

As a cultural editor during the Black Consciousness Movement, from 1968 to 1974, when black Cultural Nationalism was at its heyday, what I heard over and over from the speakers I covered, and much of what I published in my magazine, Black Creation, was that black people needed to throw off “white middle class values,” and that included the nuclear family.

The black middle class was mocked by poets like Amiri Baraka, then Leroi Jones, and Howard Professor Nathan Hare, and countless others as being nothing but “black Anglo-Saxons.” Sellouts, race traitors, which caused my former colleague, UC Berkeley Professor William Banks, to wonder in his insightful book Black Intellectuals, how anyone could attack this small group of hard working folks who were succeeding not because of what America had to offer, but despite what America offered to its black citizens.   

***

    In retrospect, the Black Consciousness Movement was a conservative backlash to forces unleashed by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement: racist signs were taken down; whites could actually now go to jail for harming a black; more blacks were flocking to major universities; blacks could get a job at former racist institutions like CBS, for example, and live in any neighborhood they could afford.

And a black man in America could, for the first time in 377 years, date whomever he pleased.

***

The late 60s, and early 70s saw a dramatic, highly noted rise in dating between white women and black men. By sharp contrast, the more than noticeable partnering today of white men and Asian woman has hardly produced a yawn, unlike the mass hysteria of the early 70s caused by newly liberated, happy, gallivanting black men and white woman running amok in joyful partnering.

Feminist leader Gloria Steinem knew just how to piss off and intimidate white men in power when she showed up in Newsweek, at the start of the Women’s Liberation Movement, with her “boyfriend,” the very dark, handsome, well-sculpted, black Olympic star Rafer Johnson.

   This sudden freedom is what caused the conservative backlash. Black clerics saw empty churches, and loss of control over their “flock;” politicians and civil rights leaders saw a loss of power and a shrinking base and black women saw their worst nightmare -- black men and white women carrying on in public, right before their eyes.

   The end result was that black cultural nationalists teamed up with Liberals, who also feared assimilation, and demonized and made the word “integration,” a hateful word, and recreated “separate but equal” as best they could, now known as diversity.

***

    Professor Banks spends a great deal of time in his book on the subject of interracial dating, noting that black women are the least likely to date someone of another race than any other group in the country, and, as he points out, given the fact that black women now have more money and more education than black men, is it any wonder that so many will never marry?

Still, those nagging articles about Jewish women not marrying in numbers greater than blacks, and a male Jewish population, among the most highly educated and prosperous in the nation, more than holding their own with Jewish women, made me think that maybe there was something else at play.

***

    As I read Is Marriage for White People? I started to wonder if Professor Banks would ever get to some untold truths. I was just about to give up on him when near the end of his book, on page 165, he delivers: “The anxiety that black women feel about having biracial children may have been exacerbated by social and cultural changes that we rightly regard as progress. For most of American history, the question of whether a black woman’s children would be black was a nonstarter…that was done by the so-called one drop rule…according to this principle, reflected in social practice and law alike, “one drop” of black blood was sufficient to make a person black. In the infamous 1896 case of Plessey vs. Ferguson, for example, the fact that seven out of Homer Plessey’s eight great-grandfathers were white was not sufficient to allow him to sit in the white railroad car in segregated Louisiana.

   “Now the relaxation of that coercive system means that children with one black parent and one white parent will have unprecedented freedom to define their own racial identity. The same freedom that allows people to fashion their own identity compounds the anxiety of African Americans in particular, who worry that if people can exit, perhaps they will.”

***

  The English settlers invented the one drop rule so that they could hold their mixed race offspring in bondage, as Thomas Jefferson did, and enforced that rule at the point of a gun, and later, in the Supreme Court, as Professor Banks so aptly points out.

What the Professor didn’t do, however, was to complete the untold truth, and draw the logical conclusion that African Americans are not a race in the sense that we know Africans and Europeans to be, but are a multi-racial ethnic group, and there have always been racial differences within this group that were long suppressed by the ruthless oppression of the Northern European settlers, that came pouring out at the success of the Civil Rights Movement.

   The biggest mistake the black cultural nationalists made, and continue to make, which greatly contributes to so many educated black men running away from commitment, is that they made marrying a black women, the darker the better, a political obligation, ruining everything.

My first wife, the mother of two of my four children, was dark brown, and had a beautiful face and a nice big round behind. I loved kissing her full lips. She was not my awesome black African queen, or my strong black sister. She was simply a beautiful woman, and I was damn glad that she was my wife.

Perhaps marrying someone because they had a nice ass and big, soft lips was not the smartest thing in the world to do, but it contained more genuine emotional content than marrying someone out of guilt, or just to make a political statement.

And, instead of sitting around night after night, discussing race, my wife and I made babies.



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