Is Marriage for White People?

I stopped by the Gettysburg College Library last week to pick up a book I’d asked them to purchase. I have to say, one of my favorite parts of this professor gig is that I can ask the library to buy any book I want. And then, it’s not only there for me to read, but for everyone else, too! I love libraries.

While thumbing through the new arrivals at the library, I spotted Ralph Richard Banks‘ book is Marriage for White People? and immediately thought, well, this is something I have to read. Much of the research I’ve done has underscored how marriage and domestic partnerships have changed significantly over the past few decades, and the issues of race and class are incredibly salient in that transformation.

Unfortunately, the book takes quite awhile to get going. The first several chapters paint the status of black women and men in America in incredibly broad strokes. Banks’ prose is easy and accessible, but there’s nothing particularly exciting about it. The subject matter is interesting, but he spends so much time laying down the framework for what he’s going to do that I’d recommend skipping the first few chapters if you have any familiarity with the subject matter. And by familiarity, I mean you’ve ever had a conversation with someone (white, black, Latino, etc) about a) high rates of incarceration for black males, b) increasing educational attainment of women, and c) how cultural expectations of marrying up make being single and educated difficult.

There are several gems, however, throughout the book. In places, he illuminates surprising and insightful comments from his interviewees. He speaks powerfully to the concept of a “mixed marriage” and how it might be incredibly different than it is often portrayed. Marrying “down” in education, income, or class, but in education particularly, might actually consist of a more difficult-to-navigate marital arrangement because of the difference in cultural values. More than being black or not.

The last few chapters, where Banks explores more in depth the ideas he presents in the first few chapters, are enjoyable, eye-opening, and insightful.

Still, I find Banks’ ultimate conclusions slightly disturbing. At the end of the day, he is a man telling black women that in order to save marriage, they need to marry outside the black community. While it certainly makes sense in the light of his book, I have to believe that a black woman might interpret his recommendations differently.

The weight of the world…

Related Content

  • Promises I Can Keep

MLK Day and Race

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as I’m sure you know. MLK Day was the only federal holiday we got off at Duke, or at least the only one that fell during the semester. It was always marked with a big celebration and my dance group often performed. I always liked that celebration.

But I’ve gotten totally off-topic. An article this week in the NYT highlighted the issue of choosing a race, particularly on census forms, for Latinos in the US. Latinos, who are incredibly diverse in physiognomy and heritage, are, according to the article, choosing to mark ‘other’ instead of one or more of the categories provided.

The issue is of particular importance to economists because in most microeconomic work, we control for race. The implication of this, of course, is that by including someone’s race in a regression, we are separating out some aspect that is predictive of whatever behavior or outcome we’d like measure. And not only are we separating it out, we’re separating it out in a measured, specific way such that we think it applies to all respondents.

For example, we might see a regression that says, all other things equal, the average black person receives one more year of education than a white person. (I saw a statistic like this the other day, saying that black people of similar wealth and socio-economic status get more education than their white peers, I wish I could remember where it came from.) Though the statement is necessarily couched with “on average”, if a number of people are choosing other instead of white or black or some combination of these, we’re not actually seeing the true average. This is called measurement error, and can have pretty significant effects on esimation.

In my own work, for instance, black mothers and white mothers in the Fragile Families Data display different characteristics and decisions regarding investments in children when controlling for whether they’ve received a promise of financial support. But if I were able to capture more of the group that self-identifies their race as other, this effect may be reduced or even disappear.

The question of whether to even ask about race, or ethnicity, is a sticky one. It may give us information that gives different groups more “clout” as the NYT article argues, or it may reinforce stereotypes and feed the flames. Regardless, if research continues the way it currently goes, having a large group of people opt out because they don’t find something that fits them is problematic.

There’s still lots of thinking to be done about it, and perhaps today is a good day to mull it over a bit. I hope you enjoy your MLK Day!

–“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” -MLK, Jr.

Chapter 2

I’m going a little out of order here because I’m trying to deal with something random on my first chapter that arose this week.

The second chapter of my dissertation has to do with expectations, incidentally the unifying theme of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics.

Believe me, I’m not there.

In this chapter, (chapter2_health) I show that a mother’s expectations of financial support from her child’s father influence how she invests in her child’s health. In the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing survey, women are asked a the birth of their child whether the father promised financial support. Around the child’s first birthday, they are asked when the child last went to the doctor and for long they breastfed. Interestingly, the promise of financial support is a significant predictor of whether the last doctor’s visit was in the last three months, but the effect is much more pronounced for black women. For white women, the promise of financial support is a significant predictor of how long a woman breastfed.

When I started this paper, I imagined I would be addressing a simple problem of financial (doctor’s visits) versus non-financial (breastfeeding) investments. The promise of support would make you feel richer and thus more likely to invest where you might feel constrained financially.

It turns out, however, that the effect is much more complicated that. The differences by race, which are largely differences of SES and class given the sampling strategy, indicate that a promise of support likely means very different things to people in different circumstances. The lack of distinction in terms of affecting financial versus non-financial investments also indicates that the question likely has a psychological or cultural angle that is not captured by the question itself.

In short, be careful with questions about expectations.