Election 2014  
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Can Black Women Lead on Rethinking Marriage?

Why black voters may be skeptical of marriage equality for reasons that have nothing to do with homophobia.

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The right-wing message machine has been savvy in this arena, but recently efforts to malign unmarried women have gotten a lot more desperate. Last year, two Wisconsin legislators proposed a bill based on the allegation that single parenthood is a leading cause of child abuse. Following their argument requires a suspension of logic, but the bill was really just the latest attempt to drive home the opening words of the 1996 federal welfare-reform law: "Marriage is the foundation of a successful society."

One particularly aggressive piece of that law incentivized states to convince low-income women that the life-sustaining support they and their children needed could and should be provided by husbands rather than by government. These Bridefare programs added sweeteners to the checks of married couples while slashing -- sometimes by as much as a quarter -- the benefits of cohabiting unmarried adults.

Writing in the pages of The Nation in 2002, Katha Pollitt critiqued this trend in government marriage promotion: "Why should the government try to maneuver reluctant women into dubious choices just because they are poor?... Instead of marketing marriage as a poverty program, how much better to invest in poor women -- and men -- as human beings in their own right… Every TANF [Temporary Aid for Needy Families] dollar spent on marital propaganda means a dollar less for programs that really help people."

How are these Bridefare marriages doing a decade later? Did they improve the financial stability of participants? Have their divorce rates been lower than national averages? The answers may be further proof that the right wing's belief in a marriage cure is flawed. They'd also tell us something how marriage is experienced by low-income and poor women, and how those experiences match up to the messages pushed by prominent groups within the marriage equality movement.

Soccer Moms, NASCAR Dads and Satisfied Singles

The obsession with unmarried women isn't just political. It's cultural, too. The film amplifying Steve Harvey's ubiquitous advice that we should "act like a lady, think like a man" is just the latest example. Two years ago, the mainstream media's fascination with black women's marriage rates hit a high point, and we became the topic of a conversation that we were not in a position to control. Unfortunately, that conversation was driven by media outlets that couldn't be bothered to check their numbers.

When 2009 data showed that 70.5 percent of black women between the ages of 25 and 29 had never been married, the narrowness of that age range was often left out of mainstream news reports. Headlines implied that 70 percent of all black women had never married. The truth is that as we age a majority do, but still not at the same rates as women of other races and ethnicities. According to the same data, 13 percent of black women age 55 and older had never married, compared with just five percent of white and Asian women and nine percent of Latinas.

These stats -- while not as wildly surprising as initial reports suggested -- support my thesis: Unmarried black women are an untapped force for change because we're more likely to stay that way and so are best positioned to lobby on behalf of the rights of single people and those in non-traditional families.

But there's at least one reason why we're not doing it. A number of black women across the sexual preference spectrum do desperately want to be married. Rather than heed some rallying cry to demand that policies reflect our realities, many of us are mired in frustration. What can feel most pressing is that marriage is out of reach because of larger social forces, such as the high incarceration rates of black men, the joblessness that has hit our communities especially hard during this recession (14 percent of black people in the U.S. were unemployed in July, compared to eight percent of the population as a whole), white supremacist beauty standards and other factors that put us at a disadvantage in the marriage market. These are real concerns.