Single Black Women: The Miner’s Canary

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem?, they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town – W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

How does it feel to be a problem? The question famously articulated by W.E.B. DuBois is well suited for single black women in 2010. There’s been a lot of chatter this year about the seeming crisis of singlehood among African American women, especially well-educated, middle class African American women. The issue has been the focus of an ABC Nightline special, a Washington Post story, and countless blogs.

The latest entrant into the conversation is CNN’s coverage of a debate sparked by author and relationship columnist, Deborah Cooper. Cooper recently wrote a post arguing that the black church is responsible for the low marriage rates among African American women. The crux of her argument is that the black church teaches women that the only suitable marriage partners are men who are “equally yoked,” in other words, fellow Bible thumpers and avid churchgoers. Cooper thinks this is problematic since there are many more black men who do not attend church than those who do. Her solution: black women need to skip Sunday services and head instead to the local sports bar in their best go get ’em outfits.

On the face of it, it might seem like a decent argument. After all, Cooper is saying that women need to expand their notions of appropriate romantic partners. I’m not one to quibble over that point, given that most women’s lists of desired attributes in a romantic partner are based more upon fantasy than reality – Disney movies, romantic comedies, and Harlequin romances.

Cooper overlooks the fact that religious identity and involvement are not arbitrary characteristics but are central to many people’s sense of self. They form the core values and beliefs about who we are and how we related to other people. And while all forms of religious practice, including the beliefs and practices of black churches, have some problematic aspects, Cooper’s criticism of patriarchy within the black church overlooks the ways in which black women find sustenance to cope with racism, sexism, and classism within the walls of the church. So admonishing women to loosen their religious ideals for the sake of marriage is short-sighted and irresponsible.

Still, that’s not my main contention with Cooper’s argument. I have the same issue with her column that I have with every article and television report on this topic: they are trite, specious, and unrevelatory.

Most of these discussions are based on a single, faulty assumption: black women’s singleness is an abnormality. Often there’s a second assumption: this abnormality is the result of some deficiency, most of which resides in black women themselves.

Maybe. But there’s another phenomenon occurring that is repeatedly overlooked in these discussions: there is a pervasive cultural shift underway in America with respect to beliefs about and practices of marriage. The high rates of singleness among African American women are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. They are not an abnormality but rather a prediction of the direction in which the rest of the country is heading.

In societies stratified by systems such as race, class, and gender, those groups on the lowest rungs of the sociopolitical ladder are particularly vulnerable to social shifts. Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres say it well in their book, The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy:

“Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner’s canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. It is easy enough to think that when we sacrifice this canary, the only harm is to communities of color. Yet others ignore problems that converge around racial minorities at their own peril, for these problems are symptoms warning us that we are all at risk.”

When it comes to marriage in the United States, African Americans have been the miner’s canary for a long time. According to Census reports, there has been a consistent decline in marriage across race and gender since 1950. While the decline has been more pronounced among African Americans, it is not unique.


Notice that rates of marriage among black Americans have always been lower than rates among white Americans. Also notice that rates of marriage among white Americans in 2009 were similar to the levels for black Americans in 1950. Perhaps in another sixty years, the percentage of white Americans who are married will be akin to the 2010 rates for black Americans.

There is, however, something interesting happening with African American women. Between 1950 and 1960, the percentage of women who never married were similar (and low) for blacks and whites. Likewise, black and white men had a similar likelihood of never being married. Since 1950, the chances of never marrying have increased for blacks and whites. However, the rates for blacks increased at a faster rate. And the percentage of black women who never married have risen so dramatically that they now approach the rates for black men.
Again though, notice that the chances of never marrying for white men and women in 2009 are actually slightly higher than black men and women’s chances of doing likewise in 1950.

Marriage, in general, is on the decline in America. So if being single is a problem, it is the nation’s problem.

So, how does it feel to be a problem?

Note: I have constructed these charts based upon a very brief (and not very scientific) analysis of Census data.

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