Black Women: Successful And Still Unmarried New research from Yale University suggests that highly educated black women are twice as likely to have never been married by the age of 45 as white women with similar education. Hannah Bruckner, co-author of the study, and two single black women with advanced degrees — Niambi Carter and Kimberly Hill — discuss the findings and why they ring true.

Black Women: Successful And Still Unmarried

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And now a story that's sure to get a lot of comments from our listeners. For many women, advanced education is crucial to professional success. And marriage is an important part of a satisfying home life. But a study suggests that many black women must choose between one or the other.

According to research recently presented to the American Sociological Society, African-American women with advanced degrees are twice as likely to have never been married by the age of 45 as their white counterparts, and also twice as likely to be separated, divorced or widowed.

Joining us to talk about this, is Hannah Brückner. She's the co-director of the Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course at Yale University and co-author of the research. Hannah, welcome to the program.

Ms. HANNAH BRUCKNER (Co-Director, Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course, Yale University): Thank you.

KEYES: What drew you to this topic in the first place?

Ms. BRUCKNER: I'm very interested in the life courses of women. So, how do you kind of actually position family formation and career formation in a time when most women actually do have a work life and a family life? And we were especially interested in highly educated women that is women with advanced training because, you know, if you - on top of a college degree, add a few years of graduate training and then a few years of establishing your career, you are running up against your biological clock, of course.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BRUCKNER: But if you do it, while you're in training, you know, you're going to be a poor graduate student and also a poor parent. And so, you know, there's good and bad that comes with it. And we were interested in how women strategize about this and whether there's change of a time and how they actually do it.

KEYES: Tell me, what did you find, as a difference in the marriage rate between highly-educated white women and highly-educated African-American women?

Ms. BRUCKNER: It used to be, if you look at people who were born in the '30s and '40s that black women with advanced degrees were actually more likely to get married than white women. But then, you see a change. And now, black highly-educated women are much less likely to be married at the age of 45 than white women that were born during approximately the same time.

KEYES: I know you got this from numbers, but do you have any sense of why these highly-educated black women are having trouble - I guess not having trouble, just simply aren't getting married.

Ms. BRUCKNER: What we see among all women, not only the highly-educated, is that black women are very unlikely to be married outside their group.

KEYES: When you say group, you mean their race.

Ms. BRUCKNER: Right. So if they don't marry white men, for example, with higher education and there aren't enough black men with higher education around, they have to find mates with fewer education. But there's also competition for these men from women with college degrees or without college degrees.

KEYES: So, in other words, the highly-educated black men are more willing to marry outside of the race than the highly-educated black women.

Ms. BRUCKNER: Black men are more likely to marry outside of their race and black women are more likely to marry outside of their education.

KEYES: You were quoted in a MSNBC article about your work as saying that educated black women having fewer children is a danger to the black middle class, so because the advantages of education aren't passed down to the next generation.


KEYES: Why do you think that?

Ms. BRUCKNER: It kind of sounds like as I was blaming black women that, you know, they don't contribute to the reproduction of the black middle class. That's really not what we're trying to say. What we're trying to say…

KEYES: What were you trying to say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRUCKNER: What we're trying to say is that black women face what you would call a double jeopardy. They face difficulties in the labor market because of racial discrimination and they face difficulties in the marriage market because of the imbalance in gender ratio, and the fact that there is very, very little interracial marriage, especially where black women are concerned. Now, we can't say whether these are choices that black women are making or not, what we can say is that their choices are severely limited by the demographic structure in the population.

KEYES: Having done this with numbers, do you have plans to do a different kind of study to get some idea as to why you're coming up with numbers like this?

Ms. BRUCKNER: Yes, we are hoping to soon submit a research grant, where we do much more qualitative work to learn more about this.

KEYES: Hannah Bruckner is a professor of sociology and the co-director of the Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course at Yale University. She joined us from Yale Studios. Thank you very much.

Ms. BRUCKNER: Thank you.

KEYES: Now joining us for more discussion on that study are two African-American women with advanced degrees. First, we have Niambi Carter, professor of political science and African-American studies at Purdue University. Also with us is Kimberly Hill, she is the president of Future Insight, a political consulting firm in Detroit. Thank you ladies, for joining us.

Professor NIAMBI CARTER (Political Science, Purdue University): Thank you for having us.

Ms. KIMBERLY HILL (President, Future Insight): Thank you for having us.

KEYES: We are talking about research that says African-American women with advanced degrees are twice as likely to have never been married by the age of 45 as their white counterparts and twice as likely to be separated, divorced or widowed. I have to say, like we say in Chicago, this make me go (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Kimberly, are you surprised to hear this?

Ms. HILL: You know, I am surprised to a certain extent but no too surprised. I think for one, I believe that women who have attained that level of status and achievement are very focused on their educational and career aspirations, and because we've had to focus, historically, so much on overcoming the barriers that have precluded us from advancement, it puts a lot of pressure on us to perform. And as a result of that, I feel that we have, perhaps in some instances, may have become distracted from actively engaging in other areas of interest, including relationships.

KEYES: Distracted is a heck of a word. Niambi, do you see yourself and your friends in these numbers?

Ms. CARTER: Well, I think so. I mean, I know several of my colleagues with advanced degrees who are happily married and have families, but I do believe that we, as black women, oftentimes are encouraged to make choices about getting your education or getting married. And when you get to professional schools, you're encouraged to focus on your studies - to the neglect, sometimes, of personal relationships.

KEYES: Kimberly, when you decided to go for your advanced degree, did you at all think: Does this mean I'm going to have to delay getting married, or was marriage even a thing on your mind at that time?

Ms. HILL: At that time, it really was not on my mind. I was pretty young when I completed my master's degree. And so as soon as I finished, my number one focus was getting a job, not so I could begin to repay the loans but really so I could begin to really enjoy life. And so, marriage was not something that I thought about until much further in my career - and certainly thinking about right now.

KEYES: I guess when I went to college, a lot of the women I went to college with were very much thinking okay, I'm going to get there, I might be at Spellman, I'll meet a Morehouse man. We'll get married and have wonderful children and dress like we're out of the pages of Essence magazine. Niambi, what about you?

Ms. CARTER: I didn't think about being married. I graduated college at 21, I went to graduate school right after, and I was in a relationship then, but I thought okay, well, there'll be a relationship to come after that one. So I really didn't think about being married at that moment, and I definitely didn't believe that graduate school would be a hindrance to the development of a personal relationship that could turn into marriage down the line - but I thought about graduate school first. I thought either you do school, or you do marriage and personal relationships, but never thought of them as being able to co-exist.

KEYES: That's really interesting because the thing I hear from a lot of African-American women is there just aren't enough professional African-American men out there to date, much less marry. In fact, a study shows that black women make up 70 percent of the black graduates. So was the deal that there just aren't any prospects out there?

Ms. HILL: Okay, this is Kimberly. I don't believe that. I believe that there are a lot of prospects. I just believe that perhaps we need to change or reconsider what we're looking for, what we consider a prospect. I, unfortunately, met a lot of men. Those who have pursued an interest in me have not had the balance that I'm really looking for.

So I'm not only looking for someone who has attained a great level of achievement but also someone who is spiritually grounded, which I think is critically important, especially in this day and time, in terms of sustaining relationships and having a successful marriage.

KEYES: Niambi, what do you think about the prospects?

Ms. CARTER: I would tend to agree with Kimberly that right, depending on how you define prospects, now if you're talking about finding another black man with a Ph.D. in my case, yeah, it does get to be a bit dicey - either because they've already established a relationship in graduate school or prior to coming to graduate school, but they also have more choices. And I don't think men are penalized in the same kind of way for waiting, for example, to select a marriage partner.

We tend to view men who have gotten further in their careers as more marriageable. They have more money, more status, more stability, and men tend to become distinguished when they become older, whereas women tend to just become old.

KEYES: Okay.

Ms. CARTER: So the pool that they have to choose from for acceptable partners is smaller not only in terms of education but even in age. So by that, I meant women face a penalty for sort of establishing themselves and then going to look for a mate, and I don't think men share that penalty in the same kind of way.

KEYES: Kimberly, do you think that black women need to expand their parameters - race, educational, distinguished-ness?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HILL: Yes, I do. I do believe that we need to explore other options in terms of perhaps race. You know, black men have considered this option a long time ago. They've embraced it a long time ago. However, I think that when black women think about going outside of their race, we are oftentimes criticized by our families, by our co-workers. But one of the major groups that we're criticized by that we really pay attention to are males, and you know, like they have…

KEYES: You mean black males.

Ms. HILL: Black males, as if they would have - should have an opinion on the issue.

KEYES: Because I have to say both of you sound pretty unwilling to step outside of that box. Is it just that you worry about what people are going to say, Niambi?

Ms. CARTER: Well, for me, it's not that I worry about what people are going to say. I mean, people are going to say it anyway. And I think that even if you have a partner that's of your same race, people are going to have something to talk about.

But it is a preference for me. I have wonderful black men in my life, and I've always, to my mind, thought of myself as marrying a black man. Does that mean I've not dated others? No, but I don't think we can overlook the fact that black women are not viewed as very marriageable by those outside of our race. We're not seen as adding status. So even for those that wish to marry outside of their race or to pursue relationships outside of their race, we cannot overstate the fact that somebody else has to want to date you on the other side.

KEYES: Kimberly, is Niambi right?

Ms. HILL: Well, I have to disagree to a certain extent, with Niambi, because I think that there are many men outside of the African-American race who are attracted to African-American women. Now, of course, it perhaps varies on location and, again, what your social activities are, what your social network is and what you do for fun, but I do believe that there are many men or several men that have shown interest in women who are African-American.

So I think it's not so much a matter of race as it is a matter of the type of men who are willing and ready to date strong black women.

Ms. CARTER: (Unintelligible), I'm sorry.

KEYES: Now, now, now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARTER: I mean, interest is one thing, but marriage is another, and I think it's still a small trend, and yes, there are plenty of men who are interested in dating black women, but I would still say that it is, as an option, probably not the most likely of options.

KEYES: Two African-American women with advanced degrees. Niambi Carter is a professor of political science and African-American studies at Purdue University - who joined us by phone. Also with us is Kimberly Hill, president of Future Insight, a political consulting firm in Detroit - and she joined us from Detroit. Thank you, ladies, so much for your thoughts and insights.

Ms. CARTER: Appreciate you having us.

Ms. HILL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: Still to come, the Barbershop guys sound off on why they think highly educated black women are less likely to marry.

RUDIN: There have been several times at NPR Christmas parties where I have asked Allison Keyes to marry me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, my lord.

RUDIN: And actually, she said things are so bad, I'd rather marry a black guy than you, Ken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: That's in just a few moments. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.