Michelle Obama may have become an archetypal African-American female success story — law career, strong marriage, happy children — but the reality is often very different for other highly educated black women.
They face a series of challenges in navigating education, career, marriage and child-bearing, dilemmas that often leave them single and childless even when they’d prefer marriage and family, according to a research study recently presented at the American Sociological Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco.
Yale researchers Natalie Nitsche and Hannah Brueckner argued that “marriage chances for highly educated black women have declined over time relative to white women.” Women of both races with postgraduate educations “face particularly hard choices between career and motherhood,” they said, “but especially in the absence of a reliable partner.”
And there’s the rub. As noted in a recent Sexploration column, contrary to old media reports, most educated, professional women who want to marry can and do marry. But the picture is less bright for high-achieving black women because “marriage markets” for them have deteriorated to the point that many remain unmarried, the researchers found. Since these women also feel pressured not to become single mothers, they often go childless as well, the researchers found.
In the study, Nitsche and Brueckner used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey of 50,000 households dating back to the 1970s to tease out data points on race, gender, education, marriage and fertility.
Among black women with postgraduate educations born between 1956 and 1960, the median age at which they gave birth for the first time was 34 years old. This was about the same as it was for white women in the same demographic. But once white women reached their 30s, many more of them did give birth, often more than once. Many black women did not. The rate of childlessness among this group of black women rose from 30 percent for those born between 1950 and 1955, to 45 percent for those born between 1956 and 1960.
The rate of childlessness does moderate somewhat in highly educated black women born between 1961 and 1970. In this group, 38 percent have remained childless.
Beyond the personal interests of individual women, the trend is significant because “in terms of American society, this is one additional obstacle” to the broadening of the black middle class, Brueckner said. Fewer highly educated black people having children means that they cannot pass on those advantages and knowledge.”
This defeats the goal of affirmative action, argue some demographers. The idea behind assuring that blacks had access to higher education and graduate school was that after a generation or so, African-Americans would reach a kind of achievement parity after generations of suffering educational and career restriction. But if black women, who comprise 71 percent of black graduate students, according to the census data, do not have children, the rate of achievement reaches a kind of familial dead end.
Another Yale sociologist, Averil Clarke, who has written a soon-to-be-published book called “Love Inequality: Black Women, College Degrees, and the Family We Can’t Have,” sees the impact of this demographic trend in a slightly different, and more romantic, light. It’s not about passing on economic and educational advantages, though these concerns are valid, she said. It’s about love.
“I think this inequality can be construed around outcomes in love,” she said. “We are very caught up right now in [the controversy] over gay marriage. Well, what are we arguing about? Whether people can have these kinds of emotionally satisfying experiences and if not, if that is unequal.” She also believes that these demographic facts, and the reasons for them, constrain the sexuality of some African-American women. She has found that many more are celibate than are white women with similar education levels. “So for me it matters because love matters.”
Declining marriage chances
One big reason why these women remained childless is, as one might expect, that they go unmarried, experts say. Among highly educated women of both races, about 22 percent between the ages of 20 and 45 were single in the 1970s. But then that number diverged. It has remained the same for white women, but now 38 percent of black women have never been married.
“Their marriage chances have declined,” Brueckner explained. “This may sound trivial but one reason is that they outnumber men in this education group.” The disparity in education is important because Americans have a strong tendency to marry those with equal levels of education, a trend that has only grown stronger since World War II. “So since there are fewer men with the same education,” Brueckner continued, “you either have to find another group you can marry or you are out of luck. You have nowhere to go.”
Highly educated black men tend to “outmarry” (marry outside race, religion or ethnicity) at a higher rate than black women, researchers say. Think of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Both married white women.
Black women are either much more reluctant to marry outside their race, or do not have the opportunity to do so. The answer is both, Clarke said.
In interviews with a large number of black women, she found that community pressures on black women to marry black men can be more intense than the reverse.
“A greater negative reaction falls on them,” Clarke said. “Some women in my sample told stories of African-American men on college campuses getting upset if they dated outside the race. There seems to be a sense of some policing of women’s sexuality. I think women are more controlled by these community and family pressures around who they should date. Men have greater freedom.”
But it may also be true that even highly educated black women who are willing and able to pursue a relationship with a man of another race won’t have the opportunity. A sociological line of inquiry called “exchange theory” suggests that in the piggy bank of goods each of us brings to a possible relationship — money, smarts, sense of humor, looks, family background, education, gender — African heritage is devalued compared with European or Asian heritage. African-American females, even with lots of education, do not fetch as much “value” in the marriage market.
That may be a cold way to look at love, romance, and sex, but studies dating back to the 1980s support it.
Of course if highly educated black women felt free to have children outside of marriage, they could still have a family. When some white women make that choice it is often seen as a kind of liberal empowerment.
But according to Clarke, black women are concerned about looking "ghetto." Public interpretation of our actions matter for everyone, but especially for black women, Clarke explained. “When it comes to the issue of black women and should or should they not make a choice to have a child alone, these women are very much aware that the decision to do it makes people question their class status. We associate single unwed child bearing with poor African-American women.”
Not all women who remain unmarried and childless are unhappy about it. But for a set of sometimes complex social reasons, some high-achieving black women find themselves disappointed. “That this is something being denied to people is important in and of itself,” Clarke said.
Brian Alexander is the author of the book now in paperback.