Friday, January 14, 2011

Black Women, Mass Incarceration and the Market for Finding a Husband

In a very compelling article, The Economist magazine stepped away from its standard delivery of international political updates to dig deeply into the experience of the African American woman. In the article, economists analyze dating for black women as a market, where men and women enter the market to search for a suitable mate.

The author starts off with a simple example to help make his point. He says "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?"

Then, citing the work of Tim Harford, an economist in England, the author says that because one out of the 20 women faces the possibility of never finding a husband, she tries harder to get a man, perhaps by dressing more seductively or doing things the other women might not do. She may even steal a man from someone else. This then affects what other women do to find and keep their own men, and also the behavior of the men themselves.

The example used by Harford describes, to some, the challenges that black women face in the age of mass incarceration. In the United States, one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is in jail or prison. Not only are currently incarcerated men typically ineligible for women to date, many women avoid dating ex-convicts. In the US, those who've been formerly incarcerated have difficulty finding jobs, and some may have been infected with venereal disease as a result of prison rape or other forms of sexual activity resulting from their time in prison. Scientists have linked the spread of sexually transmitted disease within the black community back to prisons and jails.
The author says that the explosion in incarceration between 1970 and 2007 can be linked to the fact that the proportion of married African American women dropped from 62% to 33% over the same time period. Two scholars cited in the article, Kerwin Kofi Charles and Ming Ching, also argue that prison has played a huge role in the drop in marital rates for black women. Their analysis determined that a one percentage point increase in the incarceration rate resulted in a 2.4 percent decline in the proportion of black women who get married.

According to the analysis, less-educated black women suffer the most in the social asymmetry that has occurred over the last 40 years. As of 2007, the Pew Research Center says that only 11% of black women aged 30 - 44 without a high school diploma had a spouse with a job. But although less-educated women are getting the shortest end of the stick, things are not so easy for educated women either.

"I thought I was a catch," a black female doctor told The Economist. "It's like, what are you going to do extra, to get his attention?"

Nearly everyone has something to say about this imbalance between men and women in the African American community. Even the comedian Steve Harvey encourages women to "think like men" in order to get what they want. I personally don't find Harvey's approach to be appealing, since the last thing I'd want to date is a woman who thinks like a dude. Also, the implication that relationship warfare should be conquered with more warfare just leads to an even greater mess than the one we have today. Love should not be about war, winning or any kind of competition; that's why it's called "love" and not something else.

With that said, a few things can be done to help deal with the breakdown of black families in the age of mass incarceration. First, our own relationships should be analyzed and managed on a micro level. The deep-seated dysfunction of the African American family requires careful reflection on the things that keep us from loving one another properly. Reading books written by certified relationship experts who scientifically study this problem for a living can go a long way in helping all of us to understand the day-to-day decisions and care necessary to make our relationships work. Many black men and women suffer deep psychological scars from their own anger toward a parent who may not have done their job properly. When we bring this anger into our relationships, we can end up destroying one situation after another without even realizing what we're doing. As my friend Terrie Williams, author of 'Black Pain,' likes to say, "Hurt people, hurt people," and black folks are pretty good at hurting one another.

The second thing we must do is address the broader macro-political roots of this problem. The issue of mass incarceration of African American men affects us all, not just black men. These men are our sons, fathers, brothers and (for black women) potential husbands. We must all demand that our political leaders (starting with the Congressional Black Caucus, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder) find ways to acknowledge this problem and help us to create solutions to the fact that so many men are being sent away for decades without any hope of returning to their families in a healthy way. Even if draconian sentencing is not done away with, prisons can be a place of rehabilitation and opportunities to create a better life for the children you've left behind. Keeping these men out of the job market and making them political non-entities long after they've done their time speaks to a larger, more insidious effort to destroy the African American family either via apathy, racism or devious financial incentives.

This problem must be solved, and we must do whatever it takes to fix it. Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the "Never Going Back" initiative to challenge mass incarceration. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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