African-American Women and Marriage Disparity

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The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reports that by age 30, only half of African-American Women are likely to tie the knot. These numbers pale in comparison to other groups. Ed Gordon discusses the issue with two social experts, Ronald Mincy of Columbia University and author Grace Cornish-Livingstone.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Twenty years ago, Newsweek Magazine made headlines with a story that declared a 40-year old woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than marry. While that statistic did not seem to be accurate, what we have seen in the last two decades is a slowing of marriage. The slow down underscores a significant trend that developed since the 1960's among African-American women. Many remain single longer and some never marry.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies has reported that by age 30, only 50 percent of black women are likely to tie the knot; these numbers pale in comparison to other groups. Some social experts say education and economics play key roles in the disparity and that marriage is increasingly becoming the domain of society's elite.

Ronald Mincy is a professor of social policy and social work practice at Columbia University. And Grace Cornish-Livingstone is a best-selling author and considered one of the foremost relationship consultants in the country. They both join us via phone from New York. I welcome you.

Ms. GRACE CORNISH-LIVINGSTONE (Author; Relationship Consultant): Hello.

Professor RONALD MINCY (Professor of Social Policy and Social Work, Columbia University): Hello. This is Ron Mincy.

GORDON: Yes, Ron. Thank you very much. Let's get into what we are hearing. Grace Cornish-Livingstone, let me start with you. We have heard over the last two decades so much about relationships, marriage, particularly among black women. Talk to me about why we are seeing fewer and fewer black women marry.

Ms. CORNISH-LIVINGSTONE: I think one is because women are expanding their education more and they're also climbing the corporate ladder a little higher. And what I found, Ed, from the current trend is the women who are getting married, they are trying to meet that 40-year dash. So what they're doing is they are running into relationships without first selecting a partner, like getting to know him first. So they're jumping into a relationship to say, look, I have done it.

So that creates a problem, because they do it within six months, and then they are divorced within a year. And a lot of them say, well, okay, I'm not a spinster, because at least I've tried it. So that's one of the major concerns that we do have, as well. But it's education and definitely climbing the corporate ladder.

And some women, they just give up after a while and say, you know what, I don't need a man; I don't have to be married. And then some of them said, you what, I didn't get married this time; so what, forget it. I'll just date for the rest of my life.

GORDON: Ronald Mincy, I know that you have studied this extensively, including a report called Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing survey. In putting that survey together, what were you hearing from black women, because I often heard what Grace Cornish-Livingstone just told us from black women, and that is the fact that many of them say, whether they believe it or not, I don't need a man.

Prof. MINCY: Well, there are several issues in play. I think the other side of it is to think about what are their options for marriage. So I think the piece of information that underlies this is that black women have enjoyed much more success than black men in the past several decades. Many more of them graduate from high school, go on to college, graduate from college and are, as my co-guest - they're climbing the corporate ladder. Whereas, the rates at which men are doing similar things are much, much lower.

So you see much lower rates of marriage among educated black women, as well as less educated black women. And I think that that's significant. So differentials between marriage rates of whites and blacks exist both for highly educated women and less educated women. And both sets of women have difficulty finding partners who are doing as well as they are. And I think that's a really critical part of the problem.

GORDON: Yet, interesting enough, Grace Cornish-Livingstone, is that we are starting to see an entire generation of young children grow up without really seeing marriage as a key component in their neighborhoods. Joy Jones wrote a commentary recently, tongue-in-cheek, saying that, after hearing from one of her students, marriage is for white folks.

Ms. CORNISH-LIVINGSTONE: And that is so unfortunate. I'm a social psychologist by trade, and I did a study for Essence Magazine some years ago, and it was called Older Woman, Younger Man. And what we found is the woman, the black women who basically climb the corporate ladder, what they find is thinking outside of the box, more or less, to say, okay, if I'm really going to get married here, maybe he is not within these certain dynamics here. Maybe I'm going to marry a younger man.

And that has been happening a lot, because the young girls are looking up now - which, unfortunately, they look for relationships. They don't grow up saying, okay, well, I want to be married. I just want to have a relationship. You know, the younger ones. So they move from relationship to relationship. And unfortunately a lot - and it could go off into something else - just going from relationship to relationship with unprotected sex, a lot of times leads to a lot of the STD's that we are seeing now, unfortunately.

So there is a whole plateau of different things coming out of this mindset that I'm not going to be married, so I'm not going to look for the one. I just want to be with someone right now.

GORDON: Ronald Mincy, we heard from Bill Cosby recently at a Spelman commencement where he received a lot of flack for telling the black women graduate class there that it's time to move on; don't wait for these undesirable black men to be a part of your life. There is this question of a diminishing pool for African-American women. How real are you finding that to be the case?

Prof. MINCY: I think it's very real. On many college campuses throughout the country, 70 percent of the African-Americans who are on those college campuses are women. This is increasingly so at historically black institutions. But it is also the case at the majority of institutions, as well. So the pool of available marriage partners, again both at the upper tail of the education distribution and at the bottom, is very restrictive, and that creates challenges. And as far as the issue about not needing a man, not needing a family, I think that's one perspective.

But the other perspective is - to the extent that marriage rates among black women remain very, very low, that means that we will never make progress on the proportion of black children who are raised by single parent families, by single moms. And whether she is educated or not, a child who is raised by both of their biological parents has a much better chance of graduating from high school and doing the litany of things that we want young people to do.

So I think that rather than sort of passing on this problem and concluding that it is unresolvable, I being to be concerned about its implications for the long term survival of black people as we know them in this country. It is certainly the case that to the extent that we continue not to marry it will retard rates of wealth accumulation, rates of assets, home ownership, and I can go on. So it's not clear that we can sort of sidestep this issue. But there is an upside that I hope we can talk about, as well.

GORDON: We'll get to that in just a moment, professor. But let me start with Grace on this, and then you can follow up and then get to the upside for me. You talk about the idea of not knowing black families as we knew them in the past, and that really, Grace, to a great degree, is already happening.

Ms. CORNISH-LIVINGSTONE: It really is. And that's why it is so unfortunate. I tell you, and if we stop to look at the components of what is making this happen, how can we find a solution that works for all of us. And it doesn't have to be big steps, but starts with small steps at a time.

And the thing is each of us has to do something that is going to help the entire community of us, starting with the couples first, teaching people how to have one to one relationships with each other. Because when you have a healthy couple, then you can have a health household, a healthy community, a healthy family, a healthier society.

And one of the things we have done, because we have a Hope Network, is teach people how to have healthy relationships. As a matter of fact, we're trying to do something about it October 21. In New York, we are holding this huge conference and it's called Healing Over Personal Experience, and it's for black men and black women.

And so we are doing something about it. It's an all-day conference; we're having celebrities, psychologists and ministers come in and say, okay, let's deal with this situation. Put everything out on the table to see how we can move up and move beyond this. Just deal with one to one first. Get rid of the animosity between each other and stop pointing the fingers and say, let us work together man to man, woman to woman, woman to man and see how we can make this thing better.

GORDON: Grace, let me ask you this very quickly, before I go to the professor for the upside of it; and that is it seems to me that there is a mask, though, that many of these women put on, particularly when they start to move toward 40, the idea that they have yet to really resign the fact that many of them won't be married. And while they say it doesn't bother them, in their private moments I've talked to many, quite frankly, and it does.

Ms. CORNISH-LIVINGSTONE: You are so absolutely right. And the thing is, to be honest, to say, yes, I do want to get married; yes, I want to meet someone, the right person. However, here is the thing. What does right mean to you? Is it a special criteria, or does he have to have certain degrees or initials behind his name? Because with a woman thinking like that - and I'm not saying not to be equally yoked - at some point, you are going to have to compromise without settling or compromise and say, look at your choices; remove the mask; learn how to let someone in. Especially if you've been on your own for so long, sometimes you have this mask up that says, I don't want to be bothered. Even though sometimes you lip service it, that you want to be with someone, but then you're not opening yourself for someone to come in. And that's what the conference is all about.

GORDON: Professor, with about two minutes to go, give us the upside of what you've seen through your studies?

Prof. MINCY: Well, the upside of what I've seen through my work as a consequence - surprisingly, of the Bush administration's initiative around healthy marriage, there are a group of administrators in the administration for Children and Families who are African-American leaders. And they have created this operation called the African-American Healthy Marriage Initiative. They've gone all throughout the country over the past two years educating, reaching out to clergy, community leaders, members of the community, to provoke a dialogue about the low rates of marriage in the African-American community.

And I think now, in addition to that dialogue, there are resources on the street that have been announced in the past three weeks about healthier marriage initiatives that will effect African-American communities. So it is my hope that, as a consequence of this engagement of government and resources, this is uncorking a conversation in the African-American community that needed to occur decades ago, in my view. But it will go through relationship skills education; it will again popularize and really get African-Americans to talk about why marriage rates are so low in the African-American community, that it does, in fact, constitute a problem and what we, as a community, can do about it.

And I am very encouraged that, as a consequence of these conversations, solutions will be found so as to increase marriage rates.

GORDON: All right. Ronald Mincy, professor of social policy and social work practice at Columbia University; and Dr. Grace Cornish-Livingston, best-selling author and relationship expert. As she said, there will be a conference held in New York on this very issue in October. For more information, go to NPR.org.

Coming up, several prominent black professors are leaving Duke. Does the lacrosse sex-assault case have anything to do anything to do with it? And the grand jury finding in the Cynthia McKinney case. We'll talk about these topics and much more on our Roundtable.

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