Promoting Marriage In The Black Community

Marriage activists in hundreds of communities around the country will gather Sunday to "strengthen and promote marriage in the black community," which has been in sharp decline. Richard Reddick, co-author of A New Look At Black Families talks about marriage in the African-American community.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

On Sunday, marriage activists in hundreds of communities around the country will gather to celebrate the Ninth Annual Black Marriage Day. It aims to strengthen and promote marriage in the black community. There's been a sharp decline in marriage overall in recent years. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2008, 72 percent of black women giving birth were unmarried. That's more than in any other ethnic group and almost double the amount from 40 years ago.

We'd love to hear from African-Americans in our audience. Are you choosing to get married or not and why? Our number in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Or you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Richard Reddick. He's the co-author of the book "A New Look at Black Families." He's also assistant professor in education administration at the University of Texas in Austin, and he joins us from a studio in Austin.

Welcome.

Professor RICHARD REDDICK (Education Administration, University of Texas at Austin; Co-author, "A New Look at Black Families"): Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: This Pew study we mentioned, it shows a decline in marriage across all ethnic groups but especially for African-Americans. Why do you think this has persistently been the case?

Prof. REDDICK: Well, I think one of the things the study talks about is the economic impact of marriage, and marriage is something - to use the old adage -you know, it's easy to get into. It's hard to get out of. So...

LUDDEN: Expensive to get out of.

Prof. REDDICK: Exactly. So, you know, economic factors factor in greatly. African-Americans tend to have far less economic capital than - compared to whites. So whatever is happening in the country writ large is going to affect African-Americans significantly more economically, and that's one factor.

The other thing I would sort of posit is the fact that alternate family forms for black families have been in existence for quite some time now, so there are a number of functional healthy two-parent sort of units raising children that aren't married. So it's not stigmatized to the level it may be in other communities for African-Americans.

But, you know, I certainly want to commend Ms. Muhammad's efforts to have the Black Marriage Day because I think it's important to start looking at the fact that black families have a lot of diversity. And within that diversity, there are a number of happily married couples, and they should be highlighted as well. So those are some things that come to my mind about what's happening.

LUDDEN: Okay. Let's talk a bit more. You raise a few points. You talk about the economics, but there's really been a big flip, I mean, in recent decades. You know, it used to be that the more - there's an economic and educational divide. It used to be that the more educated you were, the less likely you were to get married. And now, it's the reverse. And there's a big economic divide: the more better off we are, the more likely we are to be married now and vice versa. What's happening there?

Prof. REDDICK: Well, I think, again, economics play a huge role, and marriage -all the things that come with marriage that are incumbent with it - the merging of assets, the merging of credit ratings and so forth - makes a lot of sense to make sure that your financial house is in order before you get into marriage.

Any number of anecdotal experiences where people will get married and they find out their partner has, you know, bad credit and they can't qualify to buy a home and so forth. So it seems, to me, that people are waiting until they get to a point where they have the economic security, which often comes with educational level, and they're making that choice to get married at that point, perhaps. Whereas before, it was sort of we'll work together, but, again, we can't ignore the power of the economic imperative here. It's a determining factor for couples when they make that choice to get married.

LUDDEN: And so that point is feeling economically well-off enough to get married. Is it just not coming for more African-Americans?

Prof. REDDICK: Well, I think it's not simply individual, but it's also what's happening with your partner. So when you consider the fact that when you think about things like unemployment and things like educational attainment, oftentimes, there is a significant gap between African-American men and African-American women.

So that means that oftentimes you want to get your - you want to wait till your partner has the stability and an income level where you feel like you can go it together and there isn't this huge differential.

One of the things that Dr. Willie and I discovered in our book is that we look at black families as being egalitarian, and that means that they make decisions in an equal manner. The father or the mother or the wife or the husband does not lead the household, so to speak, but they share.

So if you're going to share, you know, major household decisions, it makes a lot of sense to have some kind of equal footing. So that may not necessarily mean that you have the same education or the same income, but it may mean that you have a sort of stability so you can come to the partnership and you're not, you know, the junior partner, so to speak. And that definitely isn't something that's healthy and helpful in marriages.

LUDDEN: Let's take a call. Joseph(ph) is on the line from Detroit, Michigan. Hi, there, Joseph.

JOSEPH (Caller): Hi, there. How are you doing today? Thank you for letting me on the air.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

JOSEPH: I just wanted to say that I think marriage is very important, but I think too many people are rushing into it. I think people have to wait and see how their life plays out. Many people rushed into marriage without getting their college degree, without even getting their high school degree.

In fact, in the 2002 documentary called "Spellbound," one of the leading finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she was an African-American female, and, unfortunately, she didn't end up winning. But by the time she was in 11th grade, she was a junior in high school; she had to drop out of high school because she was having a child before marriage, obviously.

So I just want to say that it's a very prevalent issue. And before you deal with it, you have to first introduce into the community ways of focusing on education. And that's basically it.

LUDDEN: Thanks for the call. Richard?

Prof. REDDICK: Yeah. Well, I think there's some good points to be made there. And I certainly think that we would much rather see people go into marriage when they feel they're ready, or they feel that the economic income is the way they want it, and they also have the educational aspiration. Because, you know, a marriage is a partnership, so it means you have to compromise some things. So, you know, if you're in school and you choose to get married, that may mean you have to change your plans in some ways.

So it simply could be an artifact that people are waiting until they have some stability. And, again, given the economic climate right now, it makes a lot of sense that people may be waiting longer than they typically have.

LUDDEN: The caller did bring up another big trend that we've been hearing a lot about, which is that people may not be getting married as much but that's not keeping them from having children.

Prof. REDDICK: Yes. And I think that's one thing that's important to point out. In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau changed how they determine what a two-parent family is. And essentially, that definition became: a two-parent family is a family that has a mother and a father - I mean, a male and female in the household raising children. And in that particularly year, we saw an increase. About 40 percent of African-American children, at that point, were being raised in the homes with two parents. So it doesn't necessarily mean they're married.

So it's important to acknowledge the fact that people are opting to be involved in families and relationships but, perhaps, not choosing to go to the marriage route.

LUDDEN: And this is something - again, we're talking about African-Americans, but we've seen it spread in other communities as well.

Prof. REDDICK: Absolutely. And one thing that we've talked about in our book is the fact that in a lot of ways the egalitarian family form that African-Americans have been basically leading the charge, so to speak, is something that a lot of other communities are looking at as well.

You think about 1960s, where a lot of families were in the mainstream - or sorry, not in the mainstream - but in the majority may have been, you know, father-led or male-dominated. Black families are much more egalitarian, much more voice given to women in the family structure. So at that point, it seems like decisions were being made involving both partners. And I think that's happening across many different communities.

So it's not simply, well, the man in the relationship feels that we should do X, Y and Z, and we do that. But more it's like, we have to come to some mutual accommodation or agreement about what's best for this family. And it may be: I don't think it's time for us to get married right now because we don't have the economic situation together. Or we can start a family, but we certainly don't think we have the status ready to go ahead and engage in that - not just a spiritual but also a legal connection that is marriage.

LUDDEN: What about, you know, cultural norms around - looking at marriage as a kind of freedom. I mean, sometimes you hear people say they don't want to give up their freedom by officially getting married, even though they might be living with the person and have children with the person. What do you make when you hear that?

Prof. REDDICK: Hmm. Yeah. You know what? There's certainly - again, marriage is a lot about compromising and meeting each other half way. So certainly, if your, you know, your goal is to spend all the weekends on the golf course or, you know, all the weekends in the shopping mall, whatever it is you have to do, you may have to curtail that somewhat if you're married. And so I think there is, sort of, an understanding that if you get into that arrangement, that means you're going to have to, sort of, reexamine some things you do.

And I think also the fact that so many young adults have grown up in environments where their parents did get divorced, so they can understand the impact that it has when a family is broken apart by divorce. So perhaps the choice is being made, let's wait. Let's make sure that we're absolute sure we want to do this before we commit to a marriage and go through all of the legal and spiritual, sort of, connections before risking having that broken apart.

LUDDEN: All right. Anna(ph) is on the line - Anna from Colorado Springs, Colorado. Go right ahead.

ANNA (Caller): Hi. I'm a good Southern girl and, you know, moved up to Colorado, got my education and I'm over 40. And when - I am a professional. And I find that it's very difficult to meet black men who are interested in marrying black females. It's like black females are also less likely to look for a spouse outside of our race. So that means there are a lot of us that have a lot on the ball. We have high expectations for ourselves. We want, you know, equals. I don't - my husband would not necessarily have to make as much money as I do, or even be white collar. I would like to marry an African-American man and that just doesn't seem to be much of an option.

LUDDEN: And are you finding that they want to marry outside their race...

ANNA: Yes. Yes.

LUDDEN: ...or they just don't want to get married?

ANNA: Very, very, very much. And it's all - and the reasons that I'm gathering are, you know, black women are not as attractive. We're loud. We're aggressive. We're - you know, everything that's wrong with us. So they're - our men are looking outside of our race because they're stereotyping us. And I'm like, did you put your mother or your sister in that category?

And I just find that, you know, if I didn't date outside my race - and most of my friends won't - I would never go out. I would never meet anybody.

LUDDEN: Huh. Richard Reddick, are you seeing this?

Prof. REDDICK: You know, Anna's comment is something - a lament I've heard so often from African-American women. And certainly, there are some societal factors at play, and one is the fact that African-American men are behind African-American women when it comes to educational attainment. So the numbers in college, for instance, about two-thirds of the college population are African-American females and one-third African-American males.

So Anna makes a good point that the arenas and the areas that - where people usually meet their partners like colleges, or in professional settings, there may not be a number of African-American males there. We also can't ignore the fact that the significant incarceration rates for African-American males also take a number of those males out of the population as well for some time.

And, you know, I certainly want to endorse and exalt the beauty of African-American women and make sure that - I think there are plenty of African-American men who are very much invested in supporting African-American women. But it's a real challenge because, you know, the professional environments and the social environments where you might mix, they aren't necessarily congruent. So oftentimes, you won't find African-American in those situations unless you are going to places where it's more of a, you know, a wider, social sort of mix.

You know, professional meetings and, you know, clubs that people who are professionals, organizations go to may not be the places you'll meet. But I do want to point out that I can think of several friends of mine, African-American women who have married African-American men, and they've married men who have less education but they're strong marriages. And certainly, I think Anna's point is well taken. They're...

LUDDEN: I need to interrupt you...

Prof. REDDICK: ...they're strong marriages.

LUDDEN: ...just one moment to say that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Anna, was that a satisfying answer or not? Do you want to come back at Richard there?

ANNA: You know, it does explain some things. This is very disappointing because I feel like I'm another negative statistic out there. And I do have children, but I chose to, you know, adopt a relative's children. So I'm an intact family, but it sure would be nice not to have to do this all alone...

LUDDEN: Anna, thanks for the call.

ANNA: ...and have a partner.

LUDDEN: Thank you for calling.

ANNA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Richard Reddick, I understand that the latest edition of the book you've co-authored, "A New Look at Black Families," has a chapter on the Obama family.

Prof. REDDICK: That's right. And it's kind of a funny story. When we started writing the book, our editors sort of suggested to us that there was this up-and-coming senator that we should look in to, has a really interesting background, you might well look at him in your book.

And as time progressed, and I was trying to finish my doctorate, and my co-author Dr. Willie, was urging me on, he became candidate Obama and then he became President Obama. And we are able to sort of apply some of the theories in our book to his family life.

And certainly, in his example, you see examples of how you have a male being mentored by a woman. We talk about cross-gender mentoring from parents in the book and, of course, his incredible support of his daughters.

And again, discussing the egalitarian nature of the black family, Michelle Obama was in - originally, Barack Obama's mentor in his law firm where he interned. So he really has a number of things that we talk about in the book in his own life. And certainly, one of the things we think is most interesting is the fact that Michelle Obama's mother is now living in the White House, helping to raise the children. So again, the extended family sort of aspect of black families is exemplified in this family as well.

LUDDEN: Do you think that we're reaching any kind of a peak, or do you believe that marriage is going to continue to decline maybe across the board and particularly in the African-American community?

Prof. REDDICK: Well, I certainly think that there's going to be a lot of opportunities to sort of re-examine what marriage is and, you know, think about the importance of the legal commitments that come with marriage. And I think we should just sort of be cautious to make any sort of proclamations about the death of marriage or anything like that, because it may be simply a fact that people are taking longer to decide who they want to spend their life with.

And also, again, as many folks are the children of divorce or grew up around divorce, they understand the impact of that situation as well. So perhaps it's a situation where people are really wanting to wait to be absolutely sure.

But I suppose we're going to find out over time. I really wouldn't want to make any prognostications about what that means at this point because, you know, you look foolish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. REDDICK: We have to wait, I think.

LUDDEN: And with the Black Marriage Day coming up, you see a need to promote the institution or not necessarily? And we just have a few seconds left.

Prof. REDDICK: Well, I know for me marriage has been a great thing. I've got two children and a lovely wife, and it's worked out wonderful for us. But certainly, I have a number of colleagues and friends who aren't married and are living happy lives. So I certainly think it's something that people should look into if they're interested. But by no means should they feel coerced or forced into it.

LUDDEN: Richard Reddick co-authored "A New Look at Black Families" with Charles Willie. He's with the John L. Warfield Center for African and African-American Studies. And he's an associate professor at the University of Texas. He joined us from a studio in Austin. Thank you so much.

Prof. REDDICK: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, it is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here to look at how ancient volcanic eruptions could have provided the building blocks for life on Earth.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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