The rate of marriage for black Americans is lower today than it has been at any time since the end of slavery. Ralph Richard Banks, in Is Marriage for White People?, examines this reality, paying particular attention to the middle class. Banks notes that the condition of black singleness is especially problematic among middle class black women. According to Banks, the shortage of “eligible” middle class black men frequently allows black men to set the terms of relationships with black women. In response, Banks suggests that rather than marrying “down”—i.e., marrying a black man from a lower socioeconomic class—middle class black women ought to open themselves to marrying “out”—i.e., marrying a man of a different race. Not only would this increase the pool of eligible men, it might also increase the rate of black marriage by leveling the playing field between black men and black women.
Banks offers a careful and thorough analysis of the declining rate of marriage among blacks in America. But this Review suggests that Banks does not follow his argument to its logical conclusion. His solution to the black marriage problem—marrying “out,” not “down”—suffers two primary flaws. First, the shortage of middle class men extends across all races. So marrying out merely shifts the burden from black women onto women of all races. Of course, there is no principled reason why black women should bear this burden exclusively; however, the proposed solution of interracial marriage does not entirely resolve the issue for any group of women. Second, Banks’s proposed solution implicitly assumes that marrying someone who is less educated, less wealthy, or both, is undesirable. Refusing to marry down, then, only further exacerbates current socioeconomic gaps. Ultimately, the best solution to the problem of social inequality perpetuated through marriage would both discourage hostility to interracial marriage and avoid reifying class distinctions. If we recognize both “marrying out” and “marrying down” as potentially legitimate choices, we will make progress toward wearing away existing barriers of race and class.