“Marriage is for White People”—The Decline of Marriage among African Americans

“Marriage is for white people.” That’s what Joy Jones was told when she was teaching a career exploration class for sixth-graders at an elementary school in the nation’s capital. As a matter of fact, more than one student offered Jones this retort when she spoke of marriage and parenthood.

Joy Jones is author of Between Black Women: Listening with the Third Ear. In a recent article written for The Washington Post, Jones laments the decline of marriage among African Americans. It wasn’t always this way, she insists.

“I grew up in a time when two-parent families were still the norm, in both black and white America,” Jones explains. “Then, as an adult, I saw divorce become more commonplace, then almost a rite of passage. Today it would appear that many–particularly in the black community–have dispensed with marriage altogether.”

This nation has been witnessing (and allowing) the undermining of its marriage culture. Throughout the culture, marriage is simply not respected or expected as it once was, and the cult of personal autonomy and the rise of postmodern worldviews have only accelerated this process. Still, the decline of marriage as an institution is not uniform across the culture. As the statistics clearly indicate, marriage is losing ground among African Americans more quickly than within the society at large.

Jones’ experience at the Washington elementary school tells the story. A young black boy had expressed his belief that being a good father was a very important personal goal–“more meaningful than making money or having a fancy title.” Jones was pleased with the boy’s statement. “That’s wonderful!,” she told him. “I think I’ll invite some couples in to talk about being married and rearing children.”

“Oh, no,” the student objected. “We’re not interested in the part about marriage. Only about how to be good fathers.” Another boy quickly offered his own analysis, “speaking as if the words left a nasty taste in his mouth,” Jones laments. “Marriage is for white people,” he said.

Considering the context, that boy’s statement is a tragedy in seven syllables. How could a young black boy come to the conclusion that marriage is only for white people?

In part, he is simply observing the reality. As Joy Jones confirms, the marriage rate for African Americans has been falling since the 1960s. At present, blacks have the lowest marriage rate of any racial group in the United States. According to the 2001 U. S. census data, 43.3 percent of black men and 41.9 percent of black women have never been married. In contrast, only 27.4 percent of white men and 20.7 percent of white women have never been married.

Of all demographic groups, African American women are least likely ever to marry. While the marriage rate fell for all Americans by 17 percent in the thirty years between 1970 and 2001, the marriage rate for black Americans fell by 34 percent.

This has caught the attention of many observers. Howard University’s Audrey Chapman has referred to African Americans as “the most uncoupled people in the country.” Sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin points out that a black child was more likely to grow up with two parents during the days of slavery than he or she is today.

The reference to slavery is very instructive. Jones understands the argument that slavery and its lingering effects explain today’s low marriage rate among African Americans. She rejects this with solid data. Indeed, she cites historian Eugene D. Genovese, who sets the record straight. Genovese, author of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, points to the incredibly strong and even sacrificial commitment to marriage that most often characterized slave families. He tells of slaves who mutilated themselves and put themselves at risk, just in order to save their marriages and to continue raising their children.

“What has shifted in African American customs, in our community, in our consciousness, that has made marriage seem unnecessary or unattainable?” Jones asks.

Her argument is that the African American world has lost sight of normal marriage. Their world has been transformed by cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and remarriage. “Sex, love and childbearing have become a la carte choices rather than a package deal that comes with marriage,” she advises. “Moreover, in an era of brothers on the ‘downlow,’ the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the decline of the stable blue-collar jobs that black men used to hold, linking one’s fate to a man makes marriage a risky business for a black woman.”

Beyond this, Jones argues that African American women hold different expectations of marriage than African American men. “My observation is that black women in their twenties and early thirties want to marry and commit at a time when black men their age are more likely to enjoy playing the field. As the woman realizes that a good marriage may not be as possible or sustainable as she would like, her focus turns to having a baby, or possibly improving her job status, perhaps by returning to school or investing more energy in her career.”

In other words, marriage just doesn’t look like a very attractive proposition to women who have had to learn to make it on their own, and who are concerned that men really will not bring much to the marriage partnership anyway.

In an autobiographical passage, Joy Jones admits that this has been true for herself, as well as for others. She turned down a wedding proposal when it came quite late and when the man appeared to bring more problems from previous relationships than Jones was willing to accept.

“Most single black women over the age of 30 whom I know would not mind getting married, but acknowledge that the kind of man and the quality of marriage they would like to have may not be likely, and they are not desperate enough to simply accept any situation just to have a man,” she explains. “A number of my married friends complain that taking care of their husbands feels like having an additional child to raise.”

So why would a black woman get married? Jones argues that she marries when marriage is presented as more than a business alliance. “If it weren’t for the intangibles, the allure of the lovey-dovey stuff, I wouldn’t have gotten married,” said one black woman. “The benefits of marriage are his character and his caring. If not for that, why bother?” That’s a good question. The benefits of marriage extend to far more than character and caring, but marriage surely cannot demand less of a man as husband. The absence of character and caring, this woman is keen to suggest, reduces marriage to a matter of cost-benefit analysis.

From her analysis of the state of marriage among African Americans, Jones moves to the larger culture, pointing to what she calls “the new twist.” It seems that the rest of America is following the lead of African Americans in this regard. “Often what happens in black America is a sign of what the rest of America can eventually expect,” Jones asserts. She cites Andrew Hacker, author of Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Woman and Men, to the effect that “the structure of white families is evolving in the direction of that of black families of the 1960s.” As Hacker’s research indicates, “In 1960, 67 percent of black families were headed by a husband and wife, compared to 90.9 percent for whites. By 2000, the figure for white families had dropped to 79.8 percent. Births to unwed white mothers were 22.5 percent in 2001, compared to 2.3 percent in 1960.” As Jones then observes: “So my student who thought marriage is for white people may have to rethink that in the future.”

This kind of statistical analysis–with cold mathematical precision and veracity–tells only part of the story. Anyone who observes American society with care must notice that marriage is becoming more and more marginalized, both in terms of how it is conceived and in terms of how it is lived.

The acceptance of easy no-fault divorce, the delay of marriage far into adult years, the remarkable rise in rates of cohabitation, and the decline of marriage as a personal and social expectation all contribute to this phenomenon.

The recovery of a marriage culture demands the attention of all Americans, not just African Americans. Respect for marriage must be rebuilt group by group, couple by couple, and individual by individual. Young people must be shown that marriage is the covenant relationship that is conducive for human happiness, well being, and satisfaction and that it is the optimal context for the raising of children and for the sustenance of society.

In order for this to happen, couples of all ages, races, and ethnicities need to live out the fullness and fulfillment of marriage before the watching world. Christians have a special stake in this, because we understand that marriage is not only a social institution, but that is also the unique arena in which the glory of God is demonstrated in the holy relationship between the husband and his wife and in the proper ordering of the household as a testimony to the grace and goodness of God. Furthermore, we are the ones who know that we will give an answer for our responsibilities in marriage–and every single Christian has an important stake in this mission of recovering marriage. Above all, the church should be the one place where healthy marriages are nurtured, expected, supported, and lived out, not only before the congregation, but before the entire society.

Something has gone horribly wrong when a young black boy believes that marriage “is for white people.” How long will it be before children his age wonder if marriage is for anyone at all?