Media Coverage of African-American Marriage
Author:Nadra Kareem Nittle
November 17, 2011
The state of African-American marriage has been a popular topic in the media, but the coverage has often stereotyped black men and women, failed to feature successful marriages and promoted quick-fix solutions to raise the marriage rate.
Clearly, this is a very complex and emotional issue. While it’s encouraging to see the mainstream media address the topic, a consistent flaw in the coverage has been the media’s failure to quote and gain information from the kinds of knowledgeable sources who can add substance, rather than sensation, to the conversation.
By seeking comments from these experts, the media can offer far more comprehensive coverage, as demonstrated by some of the interviews conducted for this article.
In recent years, the black marriage issue has been addressed by ABC’s “Nightline,” CNN and the Washington Post. This fall alone, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com and ABC’s “The View” have also broached the subject of the black marriage rate. According to the 2010 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, 29.3 percent of blacks are married compared to 52.1 percent of whites, 44.2 percent of Hispanics, 57.9 percent of Asians and 36.8 percent of Native Americans.
Another driving force behind recent news coverage of black marriage is Ralph Richard Banks’ controversial new book “Is Marriage for White People?” On the Nov. 11 episode of “The View,” co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Sherri Shepherd, who are both black, discussed the book’s suggestion that successful black women pursue interracial romance or risk ending up alone because black male professionals are few and far between.
While Goldberg, who’s been involved in several interracial relationships, doesn’t perceive interracial romance to be a problem for black women, Shepherd said that crossing the color line will prove challenging for them.
“It’s very flippant to say black women should just date outside our race…because there’s a lot of people who won’t date black women… A lot of white men, Asian men—black women are the last to be picked by these races,” Shepherd said.
This message that African-American women are unwanted, not only by black men but also by others, is frequently repeated in media coverage of black marriages. Tami Winfrey Harris, of the race and gender-focused blog, “What Tami Said,” questions the accuracy of this premise that has become a foundation for much of the media coverage. Furthermore, Harris says it can have a detrimental impact by leading vulnerable black women to remain in unfulfilling or abusive relationships.
Winfrey Harris is concerned that media coverage of black marriages almost exclusively focuses on the percentage of single black women. Winfrey Harris, who’s working on a book on the issue, says that message feeds the perception that “there’s something inherently wrong with us…It also pings on some long held historical views of black people—it’s black women being unfeminine and undesirable…black men running around spreading their seed but being lazy and irresponsible.”
She adds that the message of the “Nightline” special “Single, Black, Female” or books such as The Denzel Principle, perpetuate the idea that black women can’t have high expectations in romance. “They’ve positioned (a quality mate) as pie in the sky,” Harris says. “Don’t go looking for that. You can’t have that.”
Psychologist Shane Perrault, founder of the website African American Marriage Counseling, takes issue with some of the proposed solutions touted in books and media reports about raising the marriage rate of black women. In addition to being told to lower their expectations in mates, he says black women have also been told to date interracially or risk remaining single forever. While Perrault isn’t opposed to interracial dating, he says that the media often neglect to point out that women with troubled dating histories will likely have problems dating men of any racial background.
“If you have challenges relating to men, you’re going to take those with you (in interracial relationships),” Perrault says. “If you don’t trust men, if you have bad experiences with men, changing the color of a person is not going to make a difference. I don’t see that as a solution.”
Rather than encouraging black women to solve their dating woes by crossing the color line, Perrault says media coverage about the black marriage rate should include tips on choosing suitable partners. Black popular culture is so dominated by young entertainers that the community has shifted away from substance in the romance realm, according to the psychologist. He suggests that regardless of a partner’s color black men and women should ask themselves certain questions about potential mates, such as, “Can you talk, are you friends, do they have your best interests at heart?”
There are also other important viewpoints available if the media seeks them out.
Lamar Tyler, who co-founded the website, Black and Married with Kids, with his wife in 2007 to promote positive images of black families, says that touting interracial marriage as a quick fix for single black women is short-sighted.
“Often in these conversations they’re comparing the worst of black men to the best of white men,” he says. “There are white women getting divorced from white men all the time, so white men and black men have some of these same problems.”
In fact, similar to black women and men, white women are earning college degrees at a higher rate than white men, according to the National Center on Education Statistics. Yet, Tyler notes that the media rarely, if ever, cites this statistic to portray the state of white romantic relationships as dysfunctional.
“They are promoting the stereotypes one way or the other that black men don’t measure up to black women, black men aren’t monogamous, black men are all dating outside of their race,” Tyler says.
There are also facts available about black marriages that can change some of the misconceptions, but reporters have to be willing to track them down.
Black researchers Ivory A. Toldson, of Howard University, and Bryant Marks, of Morehouse College, found that 83 percent of black men who earn $100,000 or more have black wives. Moreover, educated black women have a higher marriage rate than other black women, a statistic the New York Times did report. And although black women do earn more college degrees than black men, African-American males are still more likely than their female counterparts to earn more than $75,000 annually.
Perhaps the researchers’ biggest revelation is that three-quarters of black women marry by age 35, a statistic that undermines the idea of a looming black marriage “crisis.” This fact alone could change the tone of some of the media coverage.
Shay Williams-Garrett, a relationship expert with the website Lovein30Days.com, agrees that the media has badly skewed black marriage statistics. But she believes that the black marriage rate should remain an area of concern because it lags behind other demographics and marriages provide economic, health and other benefits to couples.
Williams-Garrett, as does Winfrey Harris, believes the media must have more African-American voices, especially those of black women, engaged in the conversation about black marriage. Entertainer Steve Harvey has arguably emerged as the most prominent figure in media coverage of single black women. He’s appeared on “Nightline,” “Good Morning America” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” to name a few, to discuss the topic.
Williams-Garrett says that she thinks Harvey has good intentions. “He tells women to watch out for warning signs (in men) and the pitfalls that women might experience,” she says. But Williams-Garrett questions why women should be encouraged to think like men, which Harvey has advised. She says that such tips harm more than help by playing on black women’s insecurities. Instead, it’s important to feature experts who can relate to black women, Williams-Garrett says.
“I’ve been married. I’ve been a single mother. I’ve had to interact in the dating world,” she says. “I’ve been able to do the research on the problems we’re facing. We need real voices that can speak on the issue.”
La Grande Mason, a psychologist who heads the group Helping Angelinos Live Optimistic (H.A.L.O.) and has hosted the annual Black Marriage Day celebration in Los Angeles, says that the media also needs to include the voices of African-American spouses in its coverage of black marriage. While couples in the spotlight such as Barack and Michelle Obama are positive influences, Mason says reporters can also consult ordinary black men and women who’ve been married for years. His organization recognizes black couples who’ve been married for a decade or more but the media has shown little interest in Black Marriage Day, according to Mason.
“They should be there to witness the celebration of black couples who have been married for 10, 20, 60 years,” he says.
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