Author Tells Black Women: Marry "Out" Not "Down"

The forthcoming book Is Marriage for White People? How the African-American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone explores why black women are marrying men with less education and less earning power. To learn more about the book's arguments, guest host Tony Cox speaks with Carolyn Edgar, who is featured in the book written by Stanford professor of law Ralph Richard Banks.

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TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

High school chess matches aren't usually a big deal. But for kids in a town of packing houses and field workers, this game of intellect has become a very big deal. We'll find out why in just a few moments.

But, first, the upcoming book "Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone." It gives a close look at why black women marry down rather than outside of their race. The book points to how the widening education gap between black women who are earning college degrees and black men who more and more are not, leads to black women either marrying less educated and lower earning men or staying single.

Is there a benefit to African-American women crossing racial lines? Does doing so imply that that's the only way to socioeconomic advancement? We wanted to know, so we called on Carolyn Edgar, one of the women profiled in the book, which was written by Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School, who practices in New York. Carolyn, nice to have you on.

CAROLYN EDGAR: Thank you, Tony, for having me.

COX: Let's start with your story, which might mirror what a lot of college-educated black women have gone through. I understand that you married a guy who was from the neighborhood but who really wasn't your educational or financial match.

EDGAR: He was not my educational nor my financial match, however, we shared a very similar background. And I think that is part of why women, black women in particular, are comfortable or perhaps more comfortable marrying, quote, unquote, "down."

You know, I'm from a working class background. My father worked at Ford Motor Company. My ex-husband is also from a working class background. And I think that made it very easy for him to look familiar to me because he was just like a lot of the guys I had grown up with.

COX: Is it a situation where when you got married, you felt that you were perhaps more on the same level, but that eventually, with your education and your income growing and his not, that that really pushed you apart?

EDGAR: I think what became apparent during the course of the relationship was that we had a different set of values. And there were reasons why I had chosen one path from the background that I grew up in, and he chose a different path. The things that had driven me as a child to pursue, you know, education, to pursue a certain lifestyle, those became sources of conflict.

So, you know, I was a high income earning, you know, partner at a law firm. My ex-husband was a counselor. And, you know, there were things that he wanted us to do with my income that I wasn't willing to do such as, you know, buy flashy cars and flashy clothes and basically show off the amount of income I had, which I wasn't comfortable with.

The things that I value, such as, you know, putting our kids in private school and, you know, saving and, you know, retirement accounts weren't things that weren't terribly important to him. And, you know, we have some differences of opinion about the direction of our children's education, you know, where I thought their futures should lie. And, you know, there were things that I knew that one has to do, foundationally, to be ready to move to the next level that I - he just didn't have that experience because it hadn't been in his background.

COX: Was your status a problem for him or a problem for you?

EDGAR: I think his status became a problem for me, to some degree, and my status became a problem for him. I think it was mutual. For myself, I would sometimes have an issue with the way that he spoke. I didn't have a problem with his income or what he did for a living, but, you know, his subjects and verbs didn't always agree and I would get uncomfortable when he was around my friends or around some of my business partners. And he would begin speaking and using incorrect grammar. That would make me nervous and I would sometimes criticize him about that, probably in not the most loving, supportive way.

COX: Did you not know that before you married him?

EDGAR: I knew that, but, you know, one always assumes that, you know, there's a way you talk in private and a way you talk in public and, you know, that was the way I had gone through life growing up. You know, I think the term is coat switching. So I guess I expected him to coat switch when he was in the presence of my friends and my business partners and he didn't. You know, the one thing that I will say for him that, you know, definitely was a plus is that he's a very intelligent man, although he doesn't have the same educational level. So even with his grammar issues he was always able to carry on an intelligent conversation with these people. I would just find myself cringing about, you know, some of his use of words.

COX: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox in for Michel Martin. We are talking with Carolyn Edgar about the educational and economic advancement of black women compared with black men, and how that factors into who they marry. Carolyn is featured in the upcoming book "Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone written by Ralph Richard Banks.

Let's break this down to its basic form. I think this a conversation that a lot of people have had, especially African-American women who are single. So here it is. What do you think of the dating pool for educated black women inside and outside the race?

EDGAR: I personally, as a woman who is now single and dating, find the dating pool to be as full of attractive fish as ever. And I think that, you know, one of the things that Rick talks about in his book "Is Marriage for White People?" is the notion of black women sort of expanding the pools that they look to for available prospects. And I do think that that has become increasingly a part of what African-American and other women, you know, do. I think women are dating outside the race. I think they're dating older or younger than their own age. And I think, you know, overall the dating pool isn't as dire as some of these, you know, portraits if you just look at numbers of in graduation rates might make it appear.

COX: What about love? When you go outside the race does love become a non-factor, same factor, different factor?

EDGAR: It is absolutely in my opinion a factor. I think people ultimately marry for love. I think there are very few people in the world who marry for economic, purely economic reasons or purely social reasons. I think most people marry someone, whether it's someone of their same race or a different race or whatever, because they fall in love with the person.

COX: So you were married to a black man.

EDGAR: Yes.

COX: You're dating black men and white men or you're just dating white men now?

EDGAR: I have dated white and men of other races in the past. I'm currently dating a black man.

COX: This may sound crazy. What's the difference?

EDGAR: There really isn't a difference. Yes, they look a little different and, you know, there might be some differences in terms of, you know, background. But I think ultimately, we're all human and we're all looking for an opportunity to find a partner that we can grow with. And that, I believe, is ultimately what brings people together or the lack of that is what drives them apart.

COX: Carolyn, we often hear from black women who are single, who say things like: well, there's not enough black men available and there's not enough that I like. Or there's not enough that I can relate to who are available, so because of that I'm going to expand and I'm going to date whomever - whatever race you might want to describe. Now if you flip that and you have black males who are dating white females, the reaction from the community - if can put it that way - it's not the same is it?

EDGAR: I think that's a fair statement.

COX: Okay.

EDGAR: I think there is more of a sense from, you know, the quote/unquote "community" that when a black man begins to date women who are non-black that he somehow doesn't think black women are good enough or that he's abandoning the race. You certainly see this among athletes and actors, for example, where you don't really see it as much with black women.

But, you know, I've heard at least, you know, just anecdotally, that black men also feel the same way when this topic comes up in particular, that it's almost as if black women are saying that black men aren't good enough for them.

COX: Is this generational in any way, meaning younger black women are beginning to branch out more so than the older ones ever did?

EDGAR: I believe it somewhat generational. I think as, you know, the effects of the civil rights movement has, you know, the desired and intended effect of integrating neighborhoods and schools, and more and more kids are just going to school together. And different kinds of kids are going to school together and getting to know each other and that naturally fosters, you know, the possibility of relationships developing.

My daughter, for example, who's 14, if I look at her friends, she has friends who are Jewish and Dominican and, you know, black American and African and Chinese and you name it. And so it is my expectation that she could date someone from any or all of those groups.

COX: So before we let you go, answer this question for me. It's the title of the book: Is marriage for white people?

EDGAR: No. I believe that marriage is for everybody.

COX: Carolyn Edgar is an attorney featured in the forthcoming book "Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone," written by Ralph Richard Banks. It's due out in September. Carolyn was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau.

Carolyn, thank you.

EDGAR: Thank you, Tony.

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