Become a Patron


Melissa Murray

Melissa Murray, Black Marriage, White People, Red Herrings, 111 Michigan Law Review 977
(April, 2013) (88 Footnotes Omitted)

BOOK REVIEW: Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone. By Ralph Richard Banks. New York: Dutton. 2011. Pp. 189. Cloth, $25.95; paper, $16.


A staple of mystery novels, the red herring is a clue that misleads or diverts attention away from the actual issue. For example, in Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the fractious relationship between the deceased's widower and the deceased's maid is meant to distract the reader from discovering that the two are not enemies, but lovers who have conspired to poison the deceased.

Ralph Richard Banks's Is Marriage for White People? is worlds away from Agatha Christie's novels. Decidedly a work of nonfiction, Banks's book considers the plight of middle-class African Americans who, according to statistics, are the least likely of any demographic group to get and stay married. Despite these obvious differences, Is Marriage for White People? shares some important commonalities with Agatha Christie's mysteries. Banks seeks to solve a mystery, but red herrings draw attention away from the true issue that should be the subject of Banks's concern.

The mystery, of course, is the black marriage decline. In 1950, 78 percent of black families were headed by married couples. In 2007, only 33 percent of black women and 44 percent of black men were married. Though marriage rates are declining across the board, the point remains: African Americans are among the most unmarried racial groups in the United States. Banks asks: How did this happen? How did marriage go from being almost de rigeur among African Americans to being anomalous? Why do African Americans continue to lag behind other demographic groups in marriage rates? And what are the costs of this decline--for blacks and for everyone else?

Focusing on middle-class African Americans as a microcosm of the larger black community, Is Marriage for White People? attempts to solve the mystery of the black marriage decline by identifying its causes and consequences. Drawing from over one hundred interviews completed for the project, Banks concludes that the marriage decline and gap are the products of a skewed marriage market in which there is a surfeit of marriageable middle-class black women and a scarcity of similarly situated black men. To correct the market and increase marriage rates, Banks encourages middle-class black women to expand their pool of dating and marriage prospects to include nonblack men. Doing so, he argues, will, in the short term, help middle-class black women find the stable relationships they want. In the long term, this move will help ensure more black marriages (and all of marriage's benefits) in the future.

The trouble is that the book presents numerous red herrings that preoccupy the reader and divert attention from the real issue that should be of concern. The pressing public policy issue is not the black marriage decline, interracial marriage, or whether marriage is for white people. Rather, it is whether marriage should be the normative ideal for intimate life and the vehicle by which we confer a range of important public and private benefits. Banks's narrow focus on the black marriage decline prevents him from considering how the naturalization of the marital family as a privatized system of social provision impedes imagining new possibilities that better provide necessary social support and economic stability.

This Review proceeds in three parts. Part I provides a more detailed description of Banks's project. Part II focuses on the core of Banks's argument: his critique of economically “mixed” marriages and his interracial-marriage prescription. Part III shifts to consider how Banks's project would have benefited from greater engagement with marriage's institutional role in society. To this end, Part III considers what is lost in focusing narrowly on marriage and the marriage decline.