Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell goes in on the on going never-ending debate
on why successful black women are unmarried:
Like other discussions in the genre, the Nightline special began with the Disney-inspired assumption that marriage is an appropriate and universal goal for women. Any failure to achieve marriage must therefore be pathological. With this starting assumption panelists were encouraged to offer solutions without needing to fully articulate why low marriage rates are troubling.
Perhaps marriage is shorthand for describing loving partnerships. In this case the problem is that some African American women have a pressing and unfulfilled desire for emotional attachment, companionship, and love in the context of committed heterosexual relationships. This is reasonable human expectation. It is one that many men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds share. In a nation where we assert that citizens have an inalienable right to pursue happiness we might even argue (although it is a stretch) that this desire is essentially newsworthy.
However, given the distortions of or absence of black women in most mainstream media outlets we are skeptical that Nightline was primarily motivated by a desire to address the human needs of African American women. Instead, we suspect marriage is a trope for other anxieties about respectability, economic stability, and the maintenance of patriarchy. Which social issue appears on the public agenda is never accidental. In this moment of economic crisis, social change and racial transformation it is meaningful that black women are being encouraged to exclusively embrace traditional models of family and to view themselves as deficient if their lives do not fit neatly into these prescribed roles.
What the Nightline special failed to mention or bother to dig to reveal:
The solution offered most frequently in Wednesday’s conversation was familiar: professional black women need to scale back expectations. Black female success is an impediment to finding and cultivating black love. Hinging heavily on humor and black female desperation, like so many other conversations, articles, and news programs before it, this conversation missed the opportunity to offer a thoughtful analysis of structural, sociological, historical and political realities that serve as an impediment to fruitful partnerships between black men and women.
For example, the panel failed to address the reality that black boy infants are significantly more likely to die in the first year of life than are black girl infants, creating an immediate gender imbalance. The panel did not address the devastating effects of urban violence or mass incarceration on African American communities. The panel did not mention the systematic nature of inadequate educational opportunities for black boys or the continuing realities of employment discrimination effecting black men and women. These structural realities have an enormous impact on the shape and function of families. Despite its role as a news program, Nightline failed to call on any sociologists, psychologists, historians or therapists who could have contributed context, statistics or analysis about the “marriage crisis” among African Americans. Instead, these delicate and compelling issues were addressed by comedians, actors, bloggers and journalists. If Nightline deemed this story to be worthy of coverage then it had an obligation to cover the story with as much integrity as another social issue. It is hard to imagine Nightline assembling a panel of actors and comedians to discuss the economy, the war in Iraq, the Catholic Church or any other relevant issue.
At a crescendo of irrelevance one panelist suggested that Michelle Robinson had secured Barack Obama as a future mate by lowering her expectations and seeing his potential rather than insisting that he be President before she would accept a date. It is nothing less than bizarre to characterize the Obamas in this way. As Shepherd pointed out, Barack Obama was a Harvard law student when he met Michelle, which can hardly be considered lowered expectations. Further when the Obamas tell their own story they always emphasize how a young Barack wooed and courted Michelle, seeing in her the possibilities of egalitarian partnership rooted in mutual respect, shared values and collective ambition. Theirs was a love story made possible by the structural realities of relative privilege, good education and bright economic futures. It is also a story rooted in a black man’s enthusiastic embrace of an ambitious black woman.
Ultimately this panel did little more than shame, blame and stereotype black women. It offered few original insights and called into question that continued relevance of Nightline as a source of meaningful social and political information.
She makes many valid points…although some may feel this topic has been beaten like a dead horse, please feel free to discuss.