Onstage at the swanky Los Angeles Athletic Club, a panel of successful black men and women —lawyers, professors and business owners — was offering relationship advice.
Hundreds of women had paid $10 to hear it. Dozens lined up to ask questions:
Given the shortage of black men, should women compromise on monogamy? What's more important in a relationship, chemistry or stability? Why do black men find successful women so intimidating?
But I found the more interesting talk down the hall, among strangers in the ladies' room.
"My girlfriend is going out with a Persian guy and he treats her like a queen," announced a dark-skinned woman in a tight blue dress. "She's gonna see if he has a friend for me."
A statuesque woman with a halo of brown curls described a dinner date with a white co-worker. "I never thought of him as my type," she said. "He's short. But cute. And interesting. Maybe I could get over the manliness thing."
A squat, middle-aged woman high-fived her, "You go, girl"-style. "Now ask yourself," she tossed out, "if you can see 'blue eyes' doing the husband thing."
The shortage of "good" black men has long been a staple of girl talk — over dinner, over drinks and while lounging around a backyard pool.
Now — thanks to Oprah, "Nightline" and a flurry of magazine and newspaper pieces — the angst of unpartnered black women is getting a public airing. Many find it liberating. Some find it uncomfortable.
Last month, more than 1,000 people turned out in suburban Atlanta for the taping of "Nightline Face Off: Why Can't a Successful Black Woman Find a Man."
The series drew plenty of criticism: "I had no idea our private lives were so sensational," posted one viewer. "If I read another of those 'black women have trouble finding good men articles' I'm going to throw up," wrote another.
The hysteria does have a familiar ring. Remember 24 years ago when Newsweek announced that a white woman still single at 40 "was more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than to marry? The assertion prompted years of handwringing, only to be later debunked.
Still, census figures suggest that the gap between the experiences of black and white women is large and growing. More than 40% of black women have never married, compared with 21% of white women.
Several studies suggest that black women are uniquely segregated in the romantic marketplace — only half as likely as black men and a third as likely as Asian Americans or Latinos to wed someone of another race. The surfeit of well-educated, high-income professional women and shortage of suitable partners in the traditional pool of black men makes black women more likely than any other group of women to marry a man who earns substantially less.
A check of interracial dating sites — booming in recent years — offers a glimpse into the accompanying soul-searching:
Black women don't want to feel like "traitors," abandoning beleaguered black men. White men are wary of being seen as a "booby prize" by women who think they are settling for their second choice. Both sides wonder what the other really thinks of them.
I understand the angst. Even broaching this in a column requires me to tiptoe my way through a minefield of stereotypes — ferocious black women, wimpy white guys and irresponsible black men.
I have more than a passing interest, as an unpartnered, middle-aged black woman. And more than just superficial knowledge: my brother, a law professor at Stanford, is writing a book on the decline in black marriage and has unearthed painful stories and discouraging statistics.
He's found that black women's fealty to black men has helped create an imbalance that penalizes them. And that a combination of forces — online social networks, integrated neighborhoods and workplace diversity — are tempting them to look elsewhere for partnership.
If not a trend, it is certainly a growing reality. According to census figures, while intermarriage rates are declining for other minorities, they are rising for African Americans, who are now three times more likely to marry whites than in 1980. About 14.4% of black men and 6.5% of black women are currently in such mixed marriages.
And one-quarter of black-white marriages are black women and white men.
Darryl James is a black author and radio host who sponsors forums on "black love." Discussions are sometimes so heated that he reminds people on the invitations to be civil.
He contends that it's not so much a lack of "good black men," but changing social patterns that have made it harder for black people in their 30s and 40s to partner up. And the mainstream attention, he says, just makes the problem worse: "All this whining on 'Oprah' demoralizes black men and makes the women look angry and desperate."
James was the sponsor of the forum at the L.A. Athletic Club last year. And his advice to the women there made a certain kind of sense.
"Turn the volume down," he said. "Lose the attitude."