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The Marriage Gap : Some black women want to marry black men, but say the numbers are against them. Others, including some black men, say their expectations are unrealistic. The debate reverberates in everything from church workshops to Spike Lee movies, and is forcing the community to confront new questions.

March 28, 1993|CHARISSE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In many ways, the women are very different: One is a doctor, another a hairdresser, the third is on welfare. But they have at least two things in common.

They are black.

And they are alone.

Barbara, 45, thinks her marital chances may have died in a distant land. "I think my husband may be pushing up daisies in Vietnam," she says of the place where 7,000 black American soldiers lost their lives.

Geneva, 31, sometimes blames herself: "You sit back and think 'What's wrong with me that I can't find a good guy?' "

And LaShane, 23, says others too often take what should be hers: "I feel like I'm being cheated," she says of black men who marry non-black women.

Once, she thought she'd marry young, and live happily ever after. But finding a mate, LaShane says, "is turning out to be the most difficult thing for me to achieve."

With a strong desire to marry within their race, and with violence, incarceration, unemployment and other social factors reducing the number of available black men, many black women say they are competing for too few men. And that perceived dearth of marriageable black men has stirred an emotional debate that has reverberated from church workshops to cocktail parties, from popular literature to stage and screen.

Terry McMillan's novel "Waiting to Exhale" struck a nerve with those who claimed they saw themselves in the travails of four black women trying to forge relationships with black men. One of the most provocative scenes in Spike Lee's film, "Jungle Fever," showed black women lamenting the scarcity of potential partners. And in the theater production, "Diary of Black Men," a character boasts that he doesn't need to settle with one woman when black men are in such demand.

Many black men, however, say some black women focus on superficial qualities in potential mates, thus ignoring substantial numbers of quality bachelors.

Workshops with such titles as "Surviving the Search for Mr. Right" and "Living in the Spirit of Being Single" are being conducted at black women's conferences nationwide and have heightened a spirited debate.

Yet, despite such discourse, many say not enough serious discussion has been devoted to the decline in black marriage. They emphasize that solutions are critical to avoid a devastating impact on the black community for generations.

"This has nothing short of earthshaking implications for black women, men and children," says Ronald Mincy, senior research associate with the Urban Institute. "No one it seems has the courage to put this on the table and say, 'Listen, we have to deal with this.' . . . We're not effectively coping with this decline in marriage for what it means for the future of our community."

At stake, he and others say, is not just women's personal happiness, but the economic ascent of black America, potentially stymied by shrinking dual-income households. A growing number of women are raising children alone, and children who see no marital relationships in their homes may be less inclined as adults to make such a commitment.

The numbers show that black women under 35 are at least twice as likely as their white and Latina counterparts to have never married. And marriage rates have dropped much farther in the past two decades among blacks than any other American ethnic group surveyed. (No figures were available for Asian-Americans.)

For many black women, the fall-out is deeply personal, with emotions ranging from hopelessness to resignation. Some have opted to cross age and racial boundaries; others simply prepare to live their lives alone.

Says Eleanor Hinton Hoytt, national programs director for the National Council of Negro Women: "I think these are very desperate times for black women."

What Shortage?

Not everyone agrees there is a shortage of eligible black men. Some say such a notion has been exploited by those who focus on negatives within the black community. Others claim it is African-American men themselves who sometimes exaggerate the ratio of females to males, using their perceived scarcity to create power over women.

Regardless, the numbers document the shrinking pool of available black men.

At first glance, statistics appear to favor black women. For every 1,000 black females born in 1990, there were 29 more black males, according to U. S. Bureau of Health Statistics.

But from that point, the black male's survival odds diminish.

Black males have a slightly higher infant mortality rate than females, and homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American boys ages 15 to 19. One in four black men in their 20s are behind bars, on probation or on parole.

Black men age 20 and older faced a 13.3% national unemployment rate last December--more than twice that of white males in the same group. Some will be crippled by substance abuse and others will choose a mate of another ethnicity--or their own gender. And some will simply choose not to marry at all.

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