Roundtable: African-Americans and Marriage

Topic: the status of marriage in the African-American community: Guests: Joy Jones, author of Between Black Women: Listening With the Third Ear; William July II, author of Understanding the Tin Man: Why So Many Men Avoid Intimacy; and clinical psychologist Jeffrey Gardere, author of Love Prescription: Healing our Hearts Through Love.

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FARAI CHIDEYA host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. Today, a special roundtable discussion on the state of black marriage in 2006.

But first, back to 1965. A report called Black Families in Crisis, written by future New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, sparked demonstrations around the country. The Moynihan Report, as it became known, concluded that, quote, "unstable black families threaten the fabric of black society." The report lamented the growth of black female-headed families, and increased rates of failed black marriages. At the time, many critics accuse Moynihan of blaming the victim.

More than four decades later, black marriage rates continue to decline, and nearly 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers or out of wedlock. Joining us to discuss this issue from our New York bureau, Jeffrey Gardere, a clinical psychologist and author of Love Prescription: Healing our Hearts through Love. From KPFT in Houston, Texas, William July II, author of several books, including Understanding the Tin Man: Why So Many Men Avoid Intimacy. And from our headquarters in Washington, D.C., Joy Jones, author of Between Black Women: Listening with the Third Ear. Joy wrote an essay in the Washington Post on March 26th titled Marriage is For White People.

Welcome everybody. And Joy, let's start with the story behind the title of your essay, Marriage is For White People. What happened?

Ms. JOY JONES (Author): Back in the '90s, I was leading a career exploration class for sixth grade students, and the students said we want to know how to become good fathers. The boys were especially interested in knowing what makes someone a good parent. And I was thrilled! I said, oh, we'll deviate from the curriculum. What I'll do is I'm going to bring in a panel of married couples so we can talk about marriage and raising families.

And they said, Miss Jones, you can nix the part about marriage. We're just interested in the part about being good dads, and that's when one student said, marriage is for white people.

CHIDEYA: Now, your essay suggests that what may have been considered a crisis during the era of the Moynihan Report is now kind of a norm in black families. Single, female-headed households predominate. What kind of hit you in your heart when you heard that kid say that?

Ms. JONES: Well, I was stunned that he had that particular viewpoint. And I want to say I did bring in that panel anyway--of married people--all of whom are still married, among those couples that I brought in for that discussion. I was encouraged that there was such an interest in wanting to know what are the parameters that define good fatherhood, because they were very seriously considering, what do I need to do to be there for my children in the event the I have them?

The girls were a little bit more traditional in their expectations in terms of falling in love and getting married, but it did concern me that none of the boys seemed to think marriage was such a great idea. Their reasoning was that marriage seemed to be so fraught with drama that most of the couples that they did know seemed to be arguing or divorcing, and it caused so much turmoil in the family that it seemed simpler, in their minds, not to even go through the charade and just focus on raising their children.

The ironic twist is, at that time, I was fully expecting to become married myself, and although that was ten years ago--ten plus years ago--I am a single woman, myself.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, let me turn to you. Do you buy into the thesis of the Moynihan Report that black families are crumbling because of the lack of marriage or the lack of stable marriage?

Dr. JEFFREY GARDERE (Clinical Psychologist, Author): I believe that we, more than many other groups, need the institution of marriage in order to hold our culture strong, in order to hold our people together, and we do ourselves a disservice when we believe that or buy into that marriage cannot help us as a people. I think it can do so many positive things for us, especially when we look at relationships between men and women setting examples as role models for us as to how we can love one another and raise families together.

CHIDEYA: William, Jeff mentions the different things marriage can do. One of them is actually increase your bottom line. Studies show that, not only do white families have a higher net worth than black families, but the lack of black marriage is actually eroding the kind of bottom line of the black family. How do you react to that, and then bringing in some of the issues of intimacy that you talk about in your book?

Dr. WILLIAM JULY II (Psychologist, Author): Let me just sort of reset some of this, because I think there's an important perspective that we need to bring in here. First of all, when I do interviews, I do as many interviews with Cosmopolitan as I do with Essence magazine, for example. Guess what? The issues that I am asked about are the same issues, because women have common concerns. Men have common concerns. And a lot of this that we're making a black issue is really a larger social issue, and my concern is, as a psychologist, I'm concerned about this idea of this over-pathologizing of African-American relationships.

So, to get to your actual question, that happens to be what I did my dissertation on was the whole idea of mate selection, how people select mates, why they select mates. And this whole idea about-basically, what we're getting into is this exchange theory orientation, where marriage becomes this quid pro quo thing. And that's good, but at a certain point, marriage has to be about a lot more than that. And you see these declining rates of marriage throughout society, not just in the African-American community. As Jeff alluded to, there are some particular issues and circumstances within the black community that might exacerbate these numbers, but this is not a black male pathology. This is an overall social issue we're looking at, and I think we do a great disservice to African-Americans if we tend to make things a black issue and pathologize ourselves.

CHIDEYA: William, let me follow-up about your exchange theory. I think that what you're talking about is basically women looking at men financially, men looking at women...

Dr. JULY II: And vice versa, yes.

CHIDEYA: ...on body size and all that stuff, so...

Dr. JULY II: Absolutely. That's exactly right.

CHIDEYA: So is that our problem? Or is that America's problem if it's not just a black problem?

Dr. JULY II: Yes, and I can't take credit for the theory. That's a widespread construct of the literature, but basically, and you hit exchange theory right on the head there, the idea is that that's been cross-culturally tested, and it's universal. And so, what I would like for every listener to walk away from this conversation with is that, yes, we have specific issues in black America that we need to address. You know, the numbers in this article are shocking, but at the same time, these issues are not just us. And so, we really can't solve this issue just in black America without solving it as an American issue overall.

CHIDEYA: Well, Joy, I just want to bring in another quote from someone else in the field--sociology. Ed Laumann, a University of Chicago sociologist, talked about how black men of all income levels are less likely than white men to be in a monogamous relationship. And he said, a black man with resources is in a seller's market. What would be the incentives to hold him down? Now, if you flip that, that leaves black woman like you and me in a buyer's--in market where we're seeking to buy, and there may not be enough supply. So what have you found? You're a single woman. You expected to married a long time ago. Are you disappointed that you don't have more options?

Ms. JONES: One of the twists in this whole thing--the situation is so nuanced that you can't just have a straightforward yes, no, black, white, kind of response. If you had asked me 10 years ago, are you going to get married? I would have said, yes. And if someone had suggested that I wouldn't get married, I would have said, oh, you're lying, and that I would be happy about it, I would be incredulous. But the truth is, I'm not married. I do not have children, and my life is pretty good, which is one of the twists. So yes, women are in a buyer's market, so to speak, but yes, we also have some viable and even wonderful options. Being single is not a curse, just like being married is not a magic charm.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, what about that? Have we reached a point where people are so frustrated by the failings of marriage, whether it's black folks or people in general, that people are looking for ways to be happy single, and that's one of the reasons why we see marriage rates declining?

Dr. GARDERE: Well, I think for too long, we have tried to push this myth that the only way to be happy is through marriage, and for those of us--I don't know about William, but I know for me certainly--for those of us who are married, that may not be particularly true. Marriage is one of the hardest things that you can ever do in life. If you are lucky enough or have, some would say, the misfortune of being in a marriage that is not working, then certainly we know that the grass is not greener on the other side. I think that each and every one of us has choices in life, and sometimes those choices are a little bit less for some. For Joy, she has found, if you will, joy in being single, and so it does not sound like the type of woman who's bitter about not marrying.

And I think we need to see more people out there like that, who perhaps would like to be married, but if it doesn't happen for them at that particular time in their lives, it doesn't mean that they're less than, and it doesn't mean that they can't go on and accomplish great things and be happy. And who's to say that someone like Joy wouldn't be married in the next couple of years to come? I mean, there's so many years for all of us down the road.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jeff, one of my friends got married for the first time in her 50's, so what you point out is absolutely true in life. There's not a single age at which people get married, but also, tell me a little bit about your book Love Prescription, because I think what you're talking about is really bringing men and women to a common table. Sometimes I wonder if we have a common assumption of what marriage is. Marriage can be financial, it can be emotional, sexual. It can be about filling expectations that your parents might have. How do you bring people to the table to have a common understanding of what they're getting into?

Dr. GARDERE: I think there's some very basic things that we need to look at with regard to marriage. Certainly, the first thing is, it must be about love. Marriages that, where people get together for convenience, or simply, and I think William alluded to this, simply just for the money doesn't really work. You have to be friends, you have to be in love, and you have to keep that going.

I think that each and every one of us as couples have to have a conversation as to what our marriages are about, and how they change in our lifetimes. How they change during the lifespan of that particular marriage, and how we need to adjust in order for each of us to still have some sort of happiness as we meld into, sometimes into one person, or one unit. That's a conversation that we don't have often enough and why I think we see a 50 percent divorce rate. Again, not just in African-American homes, but in homes throughout all of the communities. I think we want to make marriage work, but the reality is that quite often, it doesn't work. Fifty percent of the time, it doesn't work.

CHIDEYA: Go ahead, Joy.

Ms. JONES: Yeah, I would like to add to that. He talks about having a conversation. And one thing I think that conversation needs to include is not just talking about the things that both couples have as shared interests, but the things that are shared values. Among the couples that seem to be flourishing, that I have observed, they have shared values.

CHIDEYA: Well, Joy, I wanted to ask and William about your two books, because they seem kind of like bookends. William's book, Understanding the Tin Man is about men and intimacy. Your book, Between Black Women, obviously, from the title about women. Joy first. What do men need to know about how women view relationships?

Ms. JONES: Well, one thing that is that women have changed a lot. So, the woman you marry is probably going to be a little different than your mother or your grandmother. I think women today are looking for more partnership. They want more of a collaborative relationship, and not just an authoritative relationship.

CHIDEYA: And William, what do women need to know about men?

Dr. JULY II: I'm so glad you asked that question. We've got to stop over pathologizing black men. It does absolutely no good for a black woman, say for example, who's looking for a relationship with a black man, to have a preconceived notion that black men and black relationships are going to have this sick quality to them. We have to stop looking, you almost have a self-fulfilling prophecy when you go out into the romantic marketplace and you assume that you're going to have problems in a black relationship.

You have to look for a shared sense of values. That's what's going to make any relationship work. As Jeff said, we're hovering at around 50 percent for marriage failures, and that's because people don't marry--regardless of color--people don't marry for values. People marry for social exchange, and what you end up is when the BMW gets repossessed or when the job gets lost, then people go, oh my God, I don't even know you. I don't even like you now that I know you.

Dr. GARDERE: But William, wouldn't you say that people, for example, let's talk about women. Wouldn't you say that women of color, for example, and Joy, I guess you'd be the expert on this. I mean, wouldn't you say that it's a situation of where black women perhaps don't marry for different reasons than white women? White women perhaps make it more of a choice that they may not want to marry, because they want to pursue their professional agendas, where as I hear many black women don't marry because they haven't been able to find the right person, or the black men have not been available to them.

Ms. JONES: It's a multi-dimensional issue. Sometimes that might be the reason why a woman doesn't marry. Other times, she might look at some of the marriages around her and doesn't want that level of quality of marriage, and can't find a better match for herself.

I agree that we don't want to over pathologize things, but we also don't want to oversimplify things, either. There's more than one reason, and the reasons are often complex and interconnected. So you can't single out just one reason why a particular woman, white or black, doesn't marry. A lot of times, a marriage, particularly a good marriage, is a constellation of a lot of things lining up to make that magic moment happen.

CHIDEYA: In your article, Joy, you write, "I was stunned to learn that a black child was more likely to grow up living with both parents during slavery days than he or she is today, according to sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin."

I know that marriage doesn't not mean children, and children does not mean marriage, but in a world where those two concepts have been linked for millennia, is there an obligation, especially for people who want to have kids or who have kids, to try to figure this out and quickly? Joy, start with you.

Ms. JONES: Study after study shows that children do best in a husband and wife headed family. And I would want to encourage those people who are parents to, wherever possible, to try to work it out with their spouses, to afford our children the best situation possible.

CHIDEYA: Jeff?

Dr. GARDERE: I think it, at this point in our lives as people of color, and I agree with William, we don't want to over pathologize African-Americans, especially black males, but I think where we are in this world, where racism is still alive and well, that we need to work harder as African-Americans to have marriages, so that we can guide our children through this jungle that we call America, where they still are considered second and third class citizens.

CHIDEYA: William?

Dr. JULY II: I think the thing that's going to be the critical connection for us is having these sense of extended fatherhood that may not be within a family unit, because we are in a situation where we have so many single family households headed by a single mother households, but there are black men who could step up in roles as mentors in rites of passage programs, in social settings, teachers, role models in the community. These people can step up and show boys how to be men, and I think that's going to be one of the things that reconnects marriage in the black community, as boys learn to be men in the true sense of the word.

CHIDEYA: From Houston affiliate KPFT, we were hearing from William July II, the author of Understanding the Tin Man: Why So Many Men Avoid Intimacy. Also, at NPR New York, we spoke with clinical psychologist Jeffrey Gardere, author of Love Prescription: Healing Our Hearts Through Love. And finally, from our Washington, D.C. studios, Joy Jones, the author of Between Black Women: Listening With a Third Ear.

Thank you all for joining us for this thoughtful discussion.

Ms. JONES: Thank you.

Dr. GARDERE: Thank you.

Dr. JULY II: Thank you.

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