Unmarried Black Women: Fact Or Fiction?

Sometimes the statistics don't tell the whole story. That is the argument economist Keith Reed makes about reported marriage rates for African-American women. Reed, who is writing a book on the subject, says he is tired of media stories that terrify African-American women about their supposedly poor marriage prospects.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As you just heard, the so-called plight of unmarried African-American women has inspired countless books, commentaries, laments and panel discussions across the media - this program is no exception.

The latest available census data finds that close to 40 percent of black women have never been married, that's compared with just 21 percent of white women. But Keith Reed, economist and author of an upcoming book on the topic, says viewing black marriage rates solely through a statistical lens has everybody flying blind on this important issue.

Keith Reed joins us now from member station WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. KEITH REED (Economist): Thank you. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: So, Keith, you say that viewing African-American marriage just as a numbers issue is a mistake. What do you mean by that?

Mr. REED: Absolutely. I think viewing marriage through only a statistical lens is a mistake. I mean what you've got to think about is that marriage has so many components to it. There are, of course, very large emotional considerations that have to be made, many cultural considerations that have to be made. Especially in the African-American community, many historic and even policy considerations that go into this stew that becomes the culture of the environment around which people get married. And that is true across the board, for almost any ethnic group; probably more true for African-Americans than for maybe any other group in the United States.

MARTIN: Well, I take your point that you say that using just marriage rates to talk about marriage in a particular community is like trying to use algebra to calculate how much you love your mother. But what do you say to the fact that there is such a sharp disparity? I mean and that clearly, the sharp disparity is meaningful to many people. Are you saying we should just ignore that fact or what?

Mr. REED: Oh, no. That's not my argument at all. I don't argue by any stretch of the imagination, that you should ignore that. What I'm saying is that you can't only look at this as a statistical equation. And I even have women who are friends of mine who will say to me oh, you know, the statistics work in your favor, you should... And I just think that's crap because, you know, so what about how many women there in Cleveland or whatever city I go to, in my experience, more than half of the people you meet are not going to have the characteristics that you're looking for.

So, if you're only looking at this on the basis of data, I think it's just a warped perception. You're talking about human beings who have emotions and feelings and backgrounds, and all of those things, and you boil it down to a conversation about numbers. It never works.

MARTIN: Yeah, but how is it any different from people looking at the fact that if you're looking for a job in a community where there's a high unemployment rate, and you have a specific - I mean sure, you could get one job and maybe that's the worldview and orientation you should have...

Mr. REED: Sure.

MARTIN: ...but the fact is, it's going to affect your chances. I mean what's the - how does that...

Mr. REED: Well, number one, relationships that have dimensions to them that aren't cold and calculated like buying a house or finding a job. Those are personal decisions, but no decision that you make is going to be more personal than who you want to spend the rest of your life with. So there are emotional considerations that have to be made, that make the cold calculus a little bit more complex.

MARTIN: Well, okay. But let's talk about some of those factors that have been discussed. One is, some researchers have asserted that with the gains black women have made in the workplace, that they're out-earning their black male counterparts.

Mr. REED: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And that therefore, there's a mismatch.

Mr. REED: Sure.

MARTIN: That because of the culture being the way it is, where men are traditionally out-earn women, that that this creates a dissidence in the relationships that - it's hard for people to overcome on a personal level. True or not true?

Mr. REED: True on some level, but again, not the entire whole story. There's a report that came out from the Insight Center for Community Economic and Development that talked about, not income, but it talked about net worth. And it broke it down among gender and racial lines. And what it found was that, even despite all of the gains that we talked about for African-American women in terms of professional status, in terms of moving into the executive ranks, and in terms of income - black women still have a lower median wealth than any other group across the board in this country.

The median wealth for single black women and single Hispanic women, in this country, is $100 and $120, respectively. That's lower than black men, that's lower than white women, that's lower than Asian men and women. Looking at that number, and if you say well, the bigger deal is income but you've got a group of...

MARTIN: Okay...

Mr. REED: ...people who have a median net worth of $100, then you start to blow that argument out of the water.

MARTIN: Okay, okay, but men have traditionally married women with fewer assets, whatever their race.

Mr. REED: Sure.

MARTIN: People can like that or not like it. So are you saying that black women are not as desirable as partners because they don't have any money?

Mr. REED: I think that in the modern world, if we're being realistic, looking at how much money a person has matters no matter who you are. This is 2010, and it may not be politically correct to say, but everybody considers the financial stability of their partner.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about...

Mr. REED: And everybody should consider the financial stability of their partner.

MARTIN: Well, what about the high incarceration rate of black men...

Mr. REED: Mm-hmm. Yeah...

MARTIN: ...who have the highest incarceration rate of any group in this country?

Mr. REED: The highest...

MARTIN: So there are those who say that this is basic arithmetic, with, because you have a high incarceration rate and you have large number of men who are under criminal justice supervision in this country, and typically at ages at which they tend to be in the marriage market, doesn't that just - the arithmetic says that it just takes a large number of people out of the marriage pool, and therefore, that's really the relevant issue. What about that?

Mr. REED: That's one relevant issue. Again, that doesn't tell you the entire story. If you don't look at it in context and take a step back - I've got some data here, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2006, looking at incarceration rates by sex, race, ethnicity, age and state. African-American men, you are correct, are by far the most incarcerated group in the United States. For all ages, one in 21, at the time that this data was published, African-American men were under the control of the criminal justices system.

But if you look across the board and you look at that number for black women, and look across both genders in all ethnicities, you'd see that among women -black women have the highest incarceration rates. Those rates are nowhere near African-American men, but the rate at which black women have been incarcerated has been steadily increasing for about the last 20 years. A lot of that has to do with, of course, the war on drugs - the same thing that's affected black men - but that rate for African-American women has actually increased faster than it has for black men.

MARTIN: Well, a final point Keith is, what is your point? Books like your fellow Clevelander, Jimi Izrael, who wrote "The Denzel Principle," which is his dating history. A lot of people thought he painted a rather negative picture of African-American women in that book. And then, you, of course, you've got Helena Andrews' book, about which we just discussed, which she talks about kind of her romantic history and some people think she painted a rather portrait of black men.

Mr. REED: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So, it's something that people talk about. I mean do you just discount the anecdotes where women talk about how difficult they find finding a partner? How should we be thinking about this? What is your point?

Mr. REED: No, I don't discount the numbers. But my point is summed up in a piece about this topic on a blog called The Fresh Express.com. And if you check that out, what I say is this: relationships and marriages happen between two people, not one woman and all of the available men in her city. If it's one you're seeking, the other 99.9 percent don't really matter. I'm saying have some perspective. Have some balance. Don't go out and look and read a piece and say oh, my god, you know, 75 percent of men in my city are supposedly on the down low. That means I'm not going to get married.

You're looking for one person with whom you could have a meaningful relationship, and you've got to remember that - that there are many, many more important things in terms of your ability as a man or a woman to have a substantive, strong relationship. And at the end of the day, if you find that person, and if you are who you're supposed to be, the statistics really won't matter.

MARTIN: Keith Reed is an economist. He's editor of Catalyst Ohio magazine, and he's working on a forthcoming book about what he says is the myth that black women can't get married. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland.

Thank you, Keith.

Mr. REED: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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