Debunking Black Marriage Myths

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A recent article in Empower magazine says that media and popular opinion are too pessimistic when analyzing the success of black couples. Ivory Toldson, a senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, says he crunched the numbers and found fallacies in the negative stereotypes associated with black courtship and marriage. He speaks with Michel Martin.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll get some tips on the secret to a good marriage from a couple who's been married 35 years and has lived to tell the tale. They offer their advice to making marriage work in their new book "I Do Every Day." That's in just a few minutes.

But first let's back it up to the beginning of the story. How many times have you heard somebody say a good man is hard to find? And how many times have you heard it said that finding a good man is especially hard, some say nearly impossible, for African-American women?

At the age of 40, for example, a college-educated African-American woman is twice as likely to be unmarried as a similarly educated white woman. For some reason, this reality has become the stuff of constant public discussion, labored over on talk shows, in reality shows and in bestselling books.

But now a Howard University professor has produced a new analysis where he suggests that there is as much hype as fact in this discussion, and he aims to separate the two. His name is Ivory Toldson. He is a senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and an associate professor of counseling psychology at Howard University. He co-authored this new report, which was published by Empower magazine. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

IVORY TOLDSON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So how did you get interested in this topic? It seems as though you're not the only one.

TOLDSON: Yeah, well, you know, this started out as a much larger essay on looking at a variety of myths as perpetuated in the media that represents black people in a way that makes us not feel very confident about ourselves in a number of different areas.

But this particular part of it, looking at whether or not there was enough successful black men for the black women who wanted them, it started to become so long because there was so much in the media that we were combating and so much new analysis that related to this topic that we decided to make this its own piece.

MARTIN: One of the interesting things you do in this piece is that you talk about some of the scenarios that are commonly discussed among African-Americans, and you say that the same scenarios exist among white people, but they're not discussed in the same way.

For example, you point out that white men are seven times more likely than white women to serve time in prison, but among the more successful white men, marriage rates are still high, but so the white community doesn't necessarily have a surplus of eligible white men, and they don't necessarily have a deficiency of marriageable men simply because a certain percentage of them, men are in prison.

You also mention that there are millions more unmarried college-educated white women than there are black women, just in terms of raw numbers. But that fact is never really discussed. I'm curious: Why do you think that is? You know, I'm not sure. And one of the things I think I find in this piece is that the plight of single, professional black women is not that much different than the same plight of single, successful white women, particularly in urban environments.

TOLDSON: In cities like New York, it's very difficult there. I mean, the cost of living is difficult, and if you have a vision of the kind of lifestyle that you want to have a married person, it's very hard to achieve that in a city like New York without making an exorbitant amount of money.

MARTIN: Let's talk about one of the other myths that you describe. You said there is this myth that black men who are successful want to marry either white women or are gay. And you're saying that it is true that there may be some highly visible African-American men who are married to white women, like Richard Parsons, for example, or like a number of athletes whom we could name, but that the reality is the overwhelming percentage of African-American men are married to African-American women.

TOLDSON: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: What about the gay aspect of it?

TOLDSON: The data that I have was much more conclusive for interracial marriage than it was for homosexuality, and that's because I use the census data. The census does not ask someone whether or not they're gay or not. But they do ask someone if they're in a cohabitating relationship and whether or not they're in a cohabitating relationship with a male or a female.

So one thing that I found was that the rate of black men who are cohabitating in a homosexual relationship is not higher with success.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about new research that aims to dispel negative notions on African-Americans and marriage. I'm joined by Professor Ivory Toldson who co-authored the report.

Well, what about the basic question, which is are there enough successful black men for the black women who desire to marry them...

TOLDSON: Be with them.

MARTIN: ...or to be with them.

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: And what is the answer to that?

TOLDSON: The short answer is it depends on how you define success. If you define success strictly by college degree then there is an imbalance. And...

MARTIN: And the same imbalance exists among whites.

TOLDSON: Among younger white people.

MARTIN: Yeah.

TOLDSON: Not older white people, but younger white people, it does.

MARTIN: You're saying that it is true that more than 800,000 more black women than black men have at least a bachelor's degree.

TOLDSON: Yes.

MARTIN: But you're saying that among African-Americans having a bachelor's degree does not equate to necessarily making a lot of money or making a sufficient income to support a family.

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: For example, you say almost 200,000 more black men than black women earn more than $75,000 per year.

TOLDSON: Yeah, that's absolutely true. We know that there are pathways to success that doesn't entail going to college. And, in fact, when we looked at African-American males who do not have a college degree who make more than six figures, number one was manager, number two was construction, number three was police officer. So you have these occupations that can make a good salary. And the reality is that black women start to separate themselves from black men in degree production in the 1960s. And actually, the more degrees you get the higher your probability of getting married among black women; it doesn't lower your probability of getting married.

MARTIN: You argue that there is an element of myth to this because there really is a reality. There are, in fact, more African-American women who are earning college degrees and advanced degrees than African-American men are.

TOLDSON: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay. That is a fact. That's been a long-going trend.

TOLDSON: Yes. Yes. The reality is that marriage rates among African-Americans are at its lowest point in history so we can't get around that. But the way that is presented in the media, it does a few things that deceives people of the true nature of the problem. So one factor is urbanization, if you live in an urban environment you are less likely to be married no matter what race you are. However, we have more African-Americans clustered in urban centers.

Another factor is economics. The less money you have the less likely you are to be married, and I think that's because of some of those factors related to the kind of lifestyle you envision having as a married person. And so I think that when we look at the factors that bring down marriage, it's obvious that there are factors that are to our detriment that is causing that lower marriage rates.

It's not the types of things that they are talking about in the media. The media likes tabloid-type information. That's not really what's bringing...

MARTIN: Well, give an example of when you think is the difference between the hype and the reality.

TOLDSON: Well I don't really...

MARTIN: I mean you're claiming in terms of the hype I would - you know, many people think it's this - there are several things that people would point to.

TOLDSON: Right. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: They'd say attitudes that as depicted in the popular, you know, media say black women are just too saucy. It is presented as an African-American female problem.

TOLDSON: Right. Yes. Absolutely. Yeah.

MARTIN: On the other hand, there's this counter-narrative which is that, you know, black men are not reliable...

TOLDSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...aren't committed...

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...promiscuous, don't value the marriage bond.

TOLDSON: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: So...

TOLDSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you think - is any of that true?

TOLDSON: Well, I mean my research just doesn't support that. But I'll concede the fact that I haven't studied that. You know, but if I can just look at the factors that I can clearly see is driving down marriage - those economic factors - if we were to repair that then we would significantly increase marriage rates. And this is stuff that we know.

As far as, you know, black women's attitudes or black men's promiscuous behavior, all of that's generated through anecdote. It's not generated by any serious analysis. So it's not anything that I, as a researcher, would take seriously, especially when I can point to demographic factors that are clearly associated with lower marriage rates among all people.

MARTIN: What do you hope people will draw from your findings?

TOLDSON: I always hope that people would develop a more serious and healthy dialogue about lower marriage rates in the black community. I hope that we pull black men into the conversation, instead of leaving them on the sidelines and having black women to try to deal with this issue on their own.

I hope that people use real facts and numbers to formulate a discussion about black marriage. And to also not discount all of the millions of black marriages that do exist and treat them as though they're an anomaly, because at least at this point they are still the norm.

MARTIN: Professor Ivory Toldson is a senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. He's an associate professor of counseling psychology at Howard University. If you want to read his findings, we'll link to it on our website. Go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. Professor Toldson was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Professor Toldson, thanks so much for joining us.

TOLDSON: Thank you for having me.

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