RECAP: “Undermining Marriage: White Supremacy and the Black Family,” Black History Month Lecture w/ Dr. Jacqueline C. Rivers

That there has been a large-scale retreat from marriage over the last half century is, to some degree, common knowledge. Far less so, Seymour Institute for Black Church & Policy Studies Executive Director Jacqueline C. Rivers stressed in her February 18 Black History Month Lecture at Mizzou, is the disproportionate degree to which this trend has been seen in, and its cascading consequences experienced by, Black communities.

First, some of the numbers: Between 1970-2010, the number of married Black women between the ages of 40-44 fell from 61% to 37%. Between 1960-2008, the number of never-married adults rose from 17% to 44% in Black communities vs. 14% to 23% in white communities. And overall marriage rates—33% in Black communities in 2018, 57% in white communities—have been in a steady state of decline in spite of a nationwide rise in cohabitation.

In terms of consequence, Dr. Rivers underscored that these statistics must be viewed alongside related data on out-of-wedlock childbirth and single-family households. Between 1965-2010, the number of Black children born out-of-wedlock rose from 25% to 73% (3% to 25% among white children), while two-parent households fell from 69% to 38% among Black families vs. 88% to 71% among white families (the latter dataset is from 1960-2016). Why is this significant? As current U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and economist George Akerlof have noted, the policy implications of this trend are dire, particularly—though not, Dr. Rivers added, exclusively—in their relation to poverty rates. More than 50% of father-absent households in Black communities are designated ‘poor,’ and a staggering number ‘extremely poor.’ Moreover, the impacts on children of the shortage of parental attention that is a byproduct of single-family households go well beyond this, to include lower performance on standardized tests and higher rates of behavioral problems and, as these children reach adulthood, lower income and occupational status, greater susceptibility to depression, and higher rates of divorce. The consequences, in other words, are generational.

These statistics, Dr. Rivers argued, require context, and she highlighted two structural factors, each tied to the United States’ legacy of white supremacy, that might shed light on the outsized effects of declining marriage rates in and on Black families.

The history of racialized economic injustice: Economic insecurity, Dr. Rivers explained, is one of the strongest drivers (maybe the strongest) of marriage decline in Black communities, and she identified three 20th-century touchstones in which this insecurity is rooted. (1) The New Deal: As a result of racist Southern Democrats’ policy machinations, farmers and laborers—occupations in which Black citizens, and Black men in particular, were highly represented—were largely cut out of Social Security benefits and unemployment insurance, removing a safety net for an already disproportionately poor community; (2) The G.I. Bill: Black men were also often denied access to the housing, education, and occupational training benefits of the G.I. Bill, perhaps the single largest factor behind today’s enduring racial wealth and equity gap. The bill effectively created the homeowning white middle class while simultaneously trapping Black families under the pressures of poverty; (3) Deindustrialization: As the wealth gap grew during the 1960s on the back of nakedly racist hiring practices and union exclusion (among other things), deindustrialization catastrophically exacerbated this problem. Disinvestment in production and manufacturing—and the subsequent loss of employment, pensions, and health insurance—hit Black families especially hard, as many were concentrated in the regions and industrial occupations that saw the higher number of jobs vanish (a problem which education inequality only compounded the aftershocks of).

The recent history of mass incarceration: The statistics here, Dr. Rivers suggested, are soberingly familiar. In 2016, the incarceration rate for Black men was 1,608 per 100,000 vs. 274 per 100,000 for white men, and while the raw numbers have declined somewhat since then, the proportions have remained essentially the same (to underscore this, she pointed to the fact that Black Americans make up 12% of the overall U.S. population and 33% of the prison population as compared to 63% and 30% for white Americans). The result of mass incarceration as it relates to the question of marriage is not only that there are simply less men in Black communities to marry but also that the collateral consequences of felon disenfranchisement reinforce the issue of economic insecurity.

It’s on this front, however, that we can begin to see a way out of the downward marriage spiral. As a result of the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and three strike laws that arose in the 1980s—each of which, again, bears the corrosive fingerprints of white supremacy—prison became the modal experience for Black men with less than a high school education. That said, steps to strike these laws have recently been taken at the federal level, though Dr. Rivers noted that, in order for such steps to produce substantive positive effects on marriage rates, we need bipartisan support at the state level for additional action, not only when it comes to these laws in particular but also in regard to the creation of alternative sentencing options for non-violent offenders. Similarly, she pointed to how increasing educational opportunities for Black youth would likewise increase earning power going forward, helping to resolve, even if in incremental ways, the economic injustices and subsequent insecurity that undermine marriage in Black communities.

Though they are less universally agreed upon, Dr. Rivers also highlighted some of the cultural factors that she sees underlying the retreat from marriage. Increased economic independence among women in general, for example, has changed the overall perception of marriage, making it less likely for them to enter into marriage in the first place or to remain in unhappy unions. Increased access to birth control and abortions has de-coupled sex from childbearing and marriage (though this doesn’t easily square with the concurrent increase in out-of-wedlock childbirths). Finally, studies show that the disproportionately high number of highly-educated Black women to highly-educated Black men has altered relationship dynamics and deteriorated gender relations in a way that, particularly when considered through the lens of Black women’s traditionally more conservative sexual values, has had a discernible impact on the institution of marriage. It is in response to these cultural factors, Dr. Rivers argued in closing, that the church might enter the equation. Though the phenomenon might be more pronounced in white communities, both the rate of disapproval of pre-marital sex and marriage rates are each noticeably higher among Black church attendees, evidence that we have levers beyond the world of policy that might help us jumpstart the long, difficult process of reviving the institution of marriage in the 21st century.