Interview Shows Disconnect in Debate About Marriage and Families

This interview with Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks is highly informative for several reasons (, 9/4/11).  Broadly speaking, the topic is the institution of marriage in America, with special emphasis on the African-American community.

The interview is interesting mostly because of Banks.  He’s intelligent, knowledgeable, empathetic and nuanced in his understanding of his subject.  That puts him in stark contrast to his interviewer who comes to the interview armed with little more than a brand of ideology that should be all too familiar to those who follow debates about marriage and childrearing.

The two together – Banks and his interviewer – give readers a pretty good view of those debates.  On one hand we have fact-based science; on the other we have opinion and the desire to alter people and society to conform to that opinion.  Banks respects the people he interviews; the interviewer finds them lacking because their values fail to accord with his.

So the question/answer format can sometimes feel like the intellectual equivalent of a minor auto accident.  It causes whiplash.  Still, for the insured, it’s well worth the read.

When Banks talks about the decline in marriage among everyone – whites and blacks – he’s actually talking about the decline of stable intimate relationships whether married or not.

It’s been the case since the 1960s. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about poorer African-Americans in the ’60s — you may be familiar with the Moynihan report, where he talked about the so-called breakdown of the family in inner city areas and the increase in single parent families among poor African-Americans. Since that time, the same developments have spread to the middle class. If you look at statistics overall, about 2 out of every 3 black women are unmarried. A minority of black men are married, as well. These figures are most pronounced among the poor, but they actually extend throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. College educated black women are about twice as likely to be unmarried as college educated white women by age 40.

Banks is interested in individual people and the impact on their lives of the marked changes in marriage rates over the last 40 or so years.  That is, he’s more interested in adults than in children and more interested in individuals than in large populations.  That’s where his empathy comes in.  He listens to what women say and reports it.

Women now have more freedom than ever to live life on their own or as they see fit because they’re able to work and bring in an income, so they don’t have to depend on men for economic support. The pressures to marry aren’t as great and people can imagine not being married. At the same time, it is the case that most black women imagine their life with a partner. This is true for most people. They may not want to marry just anyone. They may not want to marry early. They may not be desperate to marry, but did they envision that they would be 35, unmarried, and childless? No. That wasn’t the plan and it’s not the life that women want, and black women in particular are not able to realize that desire.

But actually listening to the desires and aspirations of black women holds no interest for’s interviewer.  For him, the ideology that holds that marriage and children are measures meted out by a patriarchal society for the oppression of women is the only legitimate view of the matter.  So he asserts, “A lot of people would consider the notion that happiness and fulfillment is (sic) contingent on marriage and childrearing to be offensive and retrograde.”

Now of course Banks said no such thing, nor did he suggest that “happiness and fulfillment is contingent on marriage and childrearing.”  That’s strictly a product of the interviewer’s imagination.  What Banks did was listen to and respect what the women said they desired.  They said they wanted marriage and children and were disappointed when they didn’t get them.  To the interviewer, those values are “offensive and retrograde.”  I wonder if the women know.

It turns out that Banks, being an academic at Stanford, had some experience of his own with people who shared the interviewer’s biases.  And in his circumspect, academic way, he dealt with them.

I’ve talked about this with a lot of academic white feminists at Stanford, and I’ve heard a lot of them ask, “Why do women need to be married? Why can’t they have children on their own? And who am I to impose some moral code on women?” My response is that when I went out to interview people, I thought I was going to find a lot of black women who were so happy they didn’t have to be married. But I didn’t find that. To the people who say black women are leading the charge in being unmarried and we should applaud them rather than subject them to scrutiny, I would say they’re really missing the experience that a lot of black women are having. A less charitable take is that it’s doing a disservice to black women to manipulate their experience for the ideological ends of feminism.

In Banks’s experience, feminists, when faced with women whose needs disagree with feminist ideology, toss the women over the side rather than alter that ideology.  As many people have pointed out before, ignoring actual women is a curious way to be an advocate for them.  It’s particularly curious for a movement that claims to honor almost above everything else, the personal stories of (particularly minority) women. 

But the interviewer isn’t finished with his brief that marriage and children are tools of oppression.  Eschewing questions, he states, “If so much of these women’s ideas about happiness are tied to marriage and motherhood, doesn’t that suggest that our culture is putting too much value on those two things? ”

I don’t have room to point out all the ways that statement doesn’t make sense, so I’ll just let Banks do it.

It would be ironic to make that characterization because there is so much less pressure now to marry or have children than ever. There was a time long ago when women in particular had no choice but to marry and have children. We’re beyond that point now. The overwhelming majority of people do want to have children because they do want to nurture a young person and project themselves into the next generation. I think an even larger number of people want to have a partner. Maybe they don’t when they’re in college or just after college, but as they get older, most people tend to want to have an ongoing, intimate relationship with someone. In every civilization we know of, there has been a relationship that was something like marriage, so I get a bit impatient when people talk about marriage as though this is a social construction that is oppressing people and we should just cast it off — because the issue is not formal marriage, the issue is that people want a partner.

The Salon.cominterviewer is happy to flaunt his misandry.  When confronted by Banks with the fact that young black women have surpassed young black men educationally and economically, his question “how could that possibly be a bad thing?” accomplishes little more than to reveal his bias.

Likewise, Banks gives him the information that, in couples in which the man earns less than the woman, both sexes are discomfited by the fact.  But the interviewer is impervious to the fact that women aren’t comfortable in such a relationship, having a preconceived notion of the man as the primary breadwinner.  To him, there’s only one wrongdoer in any relationship and it’s the one with the Y chromosome.

To me, the fact that so many men can’t handle women outearning them points to a crisis of masculinity more than anything else.

Well, that may be true, but if he’d pay attention to the rather well-known facts, he’d have to conclude that there’s equally a crisis of femininity, but his worldview has no room for facts that contradict his precious preconceived notions.

Given that the interviewer has plainly drunk the Kool-Aid of women’s studies programs, it’s no surprise that his antipathy for men extends to marriage as well.

So many people have healthy, if not better, relationships outside of marriage — so why care about the institution in the first place?

Of course, if he means to suggest that non-marital relationships are in some way healthier or better than married ones, in this country at least, he’s just flat wrong.  In fact, non-marital unions are far more fragile than marital ones, breaking down much more rapidly.  But again, the interviewer has no intention of letting facts interfere with his opinions.  He’s got his story and he’s stickin’ to it.

Because Banks is more interested in adults and their relationships, he never even touches on the vast sea of data that tells us that children do better in married relationships between biological parents than in any other situation.  But it’s interesting to note how powerful the motivations are to marry and procreate even after so many years of being told that both are “offensive and retrograde.”

The whole piece is a fascinating reflection of our ongoing debate about marriage, families and children.  It’s a scene of scientific knowledge fighting to be heard over a din of radical ideology that’s so wrong-headed as to ignore the desires and aspirations of women “for their own good.”

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