Saturday, April 17, 2010

Marriage Markets and Moral Development

The has a must read article called "Sex and the Single Black Woman". The first two paragraphs are included below:

IMAGINE that the world consists of 20 men and 20 women, all of them heterosexual and in search of a mate. Since the numbers are even, everyone can find a partner. But what happens if you take away one man? You might not think this would make much difference. You would be wrong, argues Tim Harford, a British economist, in a book called “The Logic of Life”. With 20 women pursuing 19 men, one woman faces the prospect of spinsterhood. So she ups her game. Perhaps she dresses more seductively. Perhaps she makes an extra effort to be obliging. Somehow or other, she “steals” a man from one of her fellow women. That newly single woman then ups her game, too, to steal a man from someone else. A chain reaction ensues. Before long, every woman has to try harder, and every man can relax a little.

Real life is more complicated, of course, but this simple model illustrates an important truth. In the marriage market, numbers matter. And among African-Americans, the disparity is much worse than in Mr Harford’s imaginary example. Between the ages of 20 and 29, one black man in nine is behind bars. For black women of the same age, the figure is about one in 150. For obvious reasons, convicts are excluded from the dating pool. And many women also steer clear of ex-cons, which makes a big difference when one young black man in three can expect to be locked up at some point. (Read the whole thing here)

This article brings up a number of issues worth discussing and I look forward to hearing what readers have to say about it. While the author appears focused on the negative impact the prison industrial complex is having on the marriage prospects of black women (and rightfully so), I found myself thinking about its impact on the "eligible" black men out there. How is this impacting their moral development, or as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, the content of their character?

This question concerns me because of my long involvement with the Baha'i Black Men's Gathering. The Universal House of Justice described the Gathering in this way:

"It addresses itself to a special situation faced by a minority that has suffered severe social and spiritual afflictions imposed upon it by the majority. The program of the Black Men's Gatherings is unique and exemplary as an avenue for transcending the legacy of anguish, frustration and social pathology that is peculiar to black men in the United states; it urges them towards a fullness of life within the spirit and principles of the Bahá'í Revelation." (The Universal House of Justice, 2000 Mar 14)

Two portions of the article jumped out at me as far as the moral development of black men goes. The first is the punch line if you will of the opening paragraph describing what happens in the imaginary world of 20 men and 20 women. The final sentence states, "Before long, every woman has to try harder, and every man can relax a little." The second is a story later in the piece about a late night phone call:

“I thought I was a catch,” sighs an attractive black female doctor at a hospital in Washington, DC. Black men with good jobs know they are “a hot commodity”, she observes. When there are six women chasing one man, “It’s like, what are you going to do extra, to get his attention?” Some women offer sex on the first date, she says, which makes life harder for those who prefer to combine romance with commitment. She complains about a recent boyfriend, an electrician whom she had been dating for about six months, whose phone started ringing late at night. It turned out to be his other girlfriend. Pressed, he said he didn’t realise the relationship was meant to be exclusive.

It seems to me that the article is describing a social dynamic with potentially catastrophic implications for the character of black men. If the mere fact of your eligibility makes you a man that multiple women will pursue and in some cases sacrifice their own moral standards to win, you have little incentive to develop moral qualities that would make you a suitable mate for black women (or any women for that matter). As the mass incarceration of black men is unlikely to lessen in the near future, the marriage market collapse within the black community will likewise continue to accelerate feeding a vicious cycle of moral erosion among "eligible" black men. Clearly there will be exceptions to this and there are plenty of black men who live exemplary lives (including ex-cons by the way). However, such men are already likely to be married or in committed relationships which is little consolation to black women.

This challenging situation underscores the importance of efforts like the Baha'i Black Men's Gathering. Eligibility for marriage or partnering in the black community has to mean more than, "not incarcerated", "has a job" or "has a pulse". Eligibility should include exemplary character and moral excellence. This would be good for black men and black women and ultimately, the world.

"By My life! The light of a good character surpasseth the light of the sun and the radiance thereof. Whoso attaineth unto it is accounted as a jewel among men. The glory and the upliftment of the world must needs depend upon it." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 36)


  1. I see where the problem is ... there are still a substantial number of African Americans who would not even consider an Interracial relationship...

    Likewise on the European American side there exists the SAME Problem.... and that is quite sad because here in the 21st century I thought that we were supposed to be a "color Blind" society...

  2. Terry, while as a Baha'i I believe in interracial relationships and am in one myself, as a social scientist I'm aware that peoples courtship behavior and choices in mate are complex. For example, I have read that African Americans are the most accepting of interracial relationships yet are the least likely of racial groups to engage in them. Why is this? One possibility is that of the possible interracial matches, blacks are considered less desirable than other racial groups (there is research to support this) an issue that you are addressing partially in your comments. I guess my point is interracial marriage has potential benefits but it is not a cure-all so to speak.

  3. Anonymous10:17 PM

    I see this problem as being one of modern (western) society, as in many cultures and faiths it is acceptable to have multiple wives. It is in fact a sign of status to be able to afford more than one wife. Though often there is a status among the wives it does allow the odds to be slightly better when there is a discrepancy in ratio. As a married professional woman, I am not condoning it, just bringing it up for discussion.

  4. I see your point .. but don't get me wrong I never said it was the "Magic Pill" that resolves humanities ill's because you may have an interracial couple but yet there might be other issues such as drug and/or alcohol abuse and Physical along with the other vises that plague man kind... The Baha'i Faith is the ONLY religion that tackles the racial issue head on whereas the other religions may view racism as a secondary or tertiary problem...

  5. Great article! and yes, generally, couples tending to marry from within their 'group' doesn't mean that they are against interracial relationships. I wish the poster (Terry) had phrased this as White Americans, instead of putting the onous, yet again on the minority group in question.

  6. The issue of monogamy vs. polygamy is interesting and I'm glad it was raised. I actually heard an African American man who was getting his Ph.D in Anthropology recommend polygamy as a way of dealing with the problems the article is bringing up. Again, in-group vs. out-group marrying is also worth discussing, the reasons why people do it and don't do it are worth thinking about. I would also agree that the Baha'i Faith is unequivocal in its promotion of racial unity and justice.

  7. the use of the term was deliberate... My ancestors came from Ireland and Germany which is in Europe... no offense was intended

  8. Anonymous5:26 PM

    Although not black or male, I spent my teen years in a small town where there were considerably more males and females. I think there is one aspect missing from your article that I was aware of among many of the outnumbered women in my small town. Many were quite insecure and suffered self esteem issues based upon the sort of question "would he be interested in me or with me if this society was more numerically balanced - am I just being settled for because of lack of alternative? I don't know if this is an issue with the black males in American society but I thought it would be worth mentioning.


  9. Gender imbalance in marriage markets impact both men and women (whether black or otherwise) in ways that can be negative. My goal was to highlight an aspect of the dynamic between black women and men that I thought the author of the original article had not really discussed. What I'm describing about marriage markets and the moral development of black men could be true of other groups of men as well when there are more women than men, however.

  10. This post gives a very concrete manifestation of the idea that our social environment impacts our moral development. When we examine how Baha'is engage in development work, through efforts like the Black Men's Gathering or the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program, this is a major theme.

    Shoghi Effendi stated: “We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.”

    The social fact of high incarceration rates among Black men in the US creates an environment that affects the hearts of those in the community. In the extreme, the Economist article suggests that somehow Black men believe they can "get away" with poor behavior in romantic relationships because they're a scarce resource in high demand. But I'm unwilling to believe this is actually the story - I would much rather hear Black men describe their own understanding of moral development and marriage. The brothers I've met at the BMG devotionals have always struck me as keenly focused on learning how to be men both they and their families can be proud of. (I say this without desiring to disparage those women who have born the brunt of bad behavior described in the article.)

    There's also something here about economic discourse. Economists love to talk about markets for things, and marriage markets are a longstanding area of research. In this case, thinking about marriages as a market gives us a compelling way of thinking about the effects of Black male incarceration on the rest of the community. But I do want to be wary. At some point we start to describe ourselves merely as agents operating in markets, and we forget that there are profound spiritual realities at work. In marriage, as in teaching, we interact with the heart - which is a sacred thing. It belongs to God. We are too quick, sometimes, to reduce these realities to an act of buying and selling (see "To the Collaborators" in "Teaching the Cause" - Book 6 of the Ruhi Institute).