Saturday, April 17, 2010

Marriage Markets and Moral Development


The Economist.com 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)