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August 07, 2007

Competition and marriageability

When I was in college, my black roommate once complained about a black classmate who had announced to her black friends that she would never marry a white guy. My roommate thought this was extremely intolerant of her.

I defended her. More precisely, I said I could understand her position. I told my roommate that I planned to marry within the faith and that while there were many perfectly wonderful women in the world who were not Jewish, I didn't plan to marry any of them.

In today's Best of the Web Today, James Taranto notes a news story about black women who are beginning to shake off the rules imposed by their mothers against dating and marrying white men. He argues that the story would not have been told in as sympathetic a light if the races had been reversed.

That's true, certainly, but it isn't his main point. He argues that anti-white prejudice is more harmful to blacks than anti-black prejudice is to whites. Blacks who refuse to marry whites rule out 87% of the population (actually, it's quite a bit less, because there are other races), while whites who refuse to marry blacks rule out only 13% of the population. Of course, it's harmful only if there's something wrong with the men who are black. The news story suggests there is, at least in the minds of black women: "She reflects many black women frustrated as the field of marriageable black men narrows: They're nearly seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and more than twice as likely to be unemployed."

So it may well be true that refusing to consider marrying white men hurts black women, but Taranto goes on to make a more debatable argument: that the attitudes of black women actually cause (in part?) the unmarriageability of black men.

What the AP misses is that the unmarriageability of black men is an effect as well as a cause of black women's attitudes. Competition for mates is an important incentive for young men to succeed in the economic marketplace, to be willing to make romantic commitments, and otherwise to behave responsibly. If a large number of black women are unwilling to consider dating or marrying nonblack men, this competitive pressure on black men is vastly reduced, and with it the incentive to succeed.
This is interesting economics but dubious sociology. Although I know nearly nothing about the sociology of American blacks, I do know a small amount about the sociology of Jews over history.

Through most of the two-millennium history of the Jewish diaspora, Jews did not intermarry with non-Jews. Given that Jews were always a minority in the societies in which they lived (modern Israel, of course, excepted), Taranto's theory should have applied to them. If Jewish women were unwilling to consider marrying non-Jewish men, and limited themselves to their own small minority group, why didn't this reduce the pressure on Jewish men to succeed? (Yeah, I know; they all had Jewish mothers. Very funny.)

Not only didn't it reduce the pressure on Jewish men to succeed but it may in fact have increased the pressure to succeed in a culture that valued marriage highly. If there were limited marriage choices among the Jewish women in the community, and only Jewish women were marriage candidates, surely the more successful Jewish men would get the more highly prized women. (In some communities, the best young scholar would be matched up with the daughter of the leading rabbi. In others, presumably, the most successful young man would get the woman from the wealthiest family.)

Which leads me to believe that Taranto's economic theory leaves out a critical factor: the importance of marriage in the subculture. In the Jewish subculture through the ages, marriage was valued above almost all else. In modern America, regardless of religion or race, marriage is valued somewhat less, and it appears that among contemporary black men, marriage may be valued even less. If marriage were a focal point of American black culture, it wouldn't matter if blacks insisted upon marrying only within their race. There still would be pressure for men to succeed and to become marriageable, despite the smaller group of potential wives. But since marriage is not terribly important to black men, why should anyone think there would be any competitive pressure on them to succeed in order to marry?