By age 30, 81% of white women will marry. For Asians and Hispanics, the number is 77%. For African-American women, the number is only 52%. The truth of the matter is, marriage is down across all races. While in the 1960’s 80% of 25-34 year olds were married, today only 45% are. Typically the reasons given are economic. The fact is, people who lack a car or financial assets are far less likely to enter into a first marriage. In an age where people stay in school longer and so many jobs have shipped abroad, it makes sense that the median age of first marriage rose four years between 1970 and 2000. Yet, there is still something distinct about the experience of black women in this age of marriage regression.
From 1980 to 2000, the percentage of white women between 25 and 29 who were married dropped significantly, 13% in fact. At the same time, however, black women experienced a drop of about twice that: 25%. That is alarming. What could account for the dramatic divide during that period? What could have possibly created the great marriage inequality we live with today, that certainly did not exist always? Many argue the issue is purely economic and thus race and education level can explain the divide and there is some truth to that. Even so, very few stop to critically examine what single anomaly of American life touches race, education level and financial security; all the variables that so heavily influence marital outcomes. One thing, more than all others, influences black men’s eligibility to marry and thus, black women’s.
As I said, between 1980 and 2000 a significant decline occurred in marriage. There was also a big shift in another realm: incarceration. In the mid 1970’s the U.S prison population was about 300,000. Today, it is well over 2 million and if you add those on parole or probation, the number is more like 7.5 million (read this and The New Jim Crow for more). It’s well documented that while crime didn’t necessarily increase during this period, the systematic incarceration of Americans- blacks particularly- skyrocketed. As the 80’s came to a close, the consequences were obvious. In DC, for example, 41% of black men in 1991 were in prison, on probation or parole. 41% of black men were essentially “ineligible” bachelors; capable of reproduction and love perhaps, but not necessarily marriage.
We know that financial assets, race and education are critical to your chances of marrying. Mass incarceration touches each of these in a powerful way, especially for black men. I can think of no more efficient way to hinder a young man’s chances of educational attainment and acquiring financial assets than this. Further, if inability to secure these things effectively removes a man from the marriage pool, quite a few black men who would be automatically removed. Think of it like this: if you wanted to put together a 500 piece puzzle but someone removed 200 of the pieces from the box, there would be several pieces left without a mate before the box is even opened. Try as hard as you may, you could never make the remaining pieces fit.
So ladies, the next time you find yourself at a lounge talking to a successful, attractive black man whom you can’t seem to connect with, consider that the man you naturally click with isn’t there. The guy that could effortlessly make you laugh and give you butterflies, you’ll never cross paths with. Perhaps he is in his mother’s basement while you drink the night away because he was arrested at 16 for having a joint and now is unemployable. Perhaps he is taking orders at McDonalds. Now, all the leftover puzzle pieces scramble, trying to force a connection with pieces it can never connect to. If there was any reason for black women to fight an unjust criminal justice system, perhaps this is it.