Is Marriage for White People? by Ralph Richard Banks

Despite the implicit “yes’ that would seem to answer the title of his new book, perhaps the most unsavory outcome of the research Ralph Richard Banks has assembled in Is Marriage for White People? is the plain assertion that marriage is “for” fewer and fewer of us, of any color, with every passing year.

The media’s culture-war narrative has declared the sacrament a battleground, but Banks’s exploration of statistics from the last fifty years revelas that marriage is for, well, married folks — and married folks is a group that is markedly shrinking.

“Let those who are married keep as they are,” quoth Prince Hamlet, a boomer 400 years avant la lettre, “but for the rest I say, we will have no more marriages.” Or something like that. The prince has quite his own reasons for questioning the institution; but the ambivalence he plays with is one that frets much of this book. Banks’s well-blended mix of anecdote and statistic portrays a social bond and a social longing that we still value, sometimes without reason, and sometimes for reasons very different from what we thought they were.

The ambivalence Banks finds in his research and articulates in his prose is neatly covered in the phrase “relationship market”, a phrase that frames his analysis, and one that sounds nearly guaranteed to make you marriage-lovers out there shudder. The supply of men and women has been changing, in the labor market and the relationship market, and these two market influence one another and the questions of who, when and whether to marry.

The structural disadvantage women have historically faced in the labor market has eroded; the value of men as material providers has taken a nose-dive. That oversimplifies the matter, but speaks to a powerful influence on marriage as an institution.

Banks pulls data from several sources and slices it in many ways, and leavens it throughout with tales from women and men who are interacting in this relationship market. Most of the anecdotes come from women; most of the women are educated and professionally accomplished. As such they find themselves in something of a bear market, outnumbering their male peers by a wide margin. Financially autonomous, these women live lives with romantic, social, and family structures different and more complicated than a 1::1 partnership.

The growing absolute and relative numbers of educated, successful black  women are negatively complemented in Banks’s study by the shifting fates of African-American men during the same period. They are only half as likely to go to college as women, less likely to graduate, and more likely to take longer to graduate when they do.

Thus the supply side of the relationship market; the demand side has evolved as well. As Banks summarizes, marriage as a relationship has largely supplanted marriage as an institution, and as such has very nearly turned on its head. Rather than making a contribution to prosperity, marriage has become an “achievement, one that requires a certain degree of financial stability.”

Most of Is Marriage for White People? explores outcomes that result from this shift in the meaning of marriage in a relationship market, outcomes that are on the increase and ones that are not. Many people reconcile differences in class background, income, race, and desire the search for a mate, some more successfully than others.

When marriage no longer has the aura of institution, however, many will choose not to negotiate those differences and make those reconciliations. That is the growing statistical case for all races, Banks demonstrates. African-Americans happen to be on the leading edge of a social development that is becoming the default reality for all Americans.

Is Marriage for White People? is an attentive blend of head and heart. It comes to conclusions that are startling and nuanced, and that in itself sets it apart from much of the discussion.

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