Tama Mattocks is a lively, articulate, 42-year-old African-American woman who lobbies for a healthcare association in Washington, D.C. A native of Detroit, she attended Wayne State University before pursuing a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Stopping just short of getting her degree, she went to work for a state assemblyman, whom she accompanied to Washington in 1992 when he was elected to Congress.
Madison was home to few blacks, so social opportunities were limited. Washington would be different, Mattocks thought, with its sizable black professional class, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Interesting, eligible men have been few and far between. Some of the men she’s met have little interest in working, preferring to seek out women who will support them”a rag-head on your couch,” she calls them, conjuring up images of the lead character in Baby Boy, John Singleton’s story of a seductive predator who lives off his girlfriends. On one occasion, the congressman even arranged a blind date, but nothing became of it. “Maybe you should join a bowling club,” one friend suggested half-jokingly. “The pain of being alone is so great that you go into denial,” says Mattocks, “so you can get up and go to work the next day.” Most of her friends have given up thoughts of marriage.
Mattocks’s experience is not unusual. Just look at any African-American publication. “Are professional black women losing in the dating game?” asks Jet, the popular African-American news magazine. “Within their own ethnic group, sisters find slim pickings,” reports the San Francisco Sun Reporter. “Most of us don’t even come in contact with single, middle-class males,” laments a professional woman in the Memphis Tri-State Defender. This struggle was captured in Terry McMillan’s bestselling novel, Waiting to Exhale, which later became a movie starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett. Its success came as no surprise to its target audience. “It is so popular,” Sherry Smith told the Philadelphia Tribune, “because there are so many single females out there trying to find a good male.”
This is something new within the African-American community. Over the last generation, most of the problems taking center stage involved such matters as single-parent families, welfare dependency, and the feminization of poverty. But here’s a problem affecting relatively successful African Americans. The number of well-educated, professional women is multiplying rapidly; but the number of similarly situated black men is not. In fact, as black women advance, black men are falling further and further behind. It’s not a subject that black leaders like to address, but it’s a hot topic in African-American periodicals, where professional women complain bitterly about the difficulty of finding suitable mates.
African Americans have made great strides in the area of education over the last 20 years. The percentage graduating from high school has increased by more than one quarter, and the percentage enrolling in college is up 44 percent. African Americans still trail whites in both areas, but at least the numbers are moving in the right direction.
Unfortunately, nearly all the improvement in college enrollment has been among black women, who now receive twice as many college degrees as black men. The number of black men graduating from college today has barely budged from where it was 20 years ago.
Nationally, college women outnumber men among all racial groups. But the imbalance is much greater among African Americans. Black women earn twice as many master’s degrees, 50 percent more PhDs, and 50 percent more degrees in law, medicine, and dentistry. What’s more, the gap is widening. If current trends continue, 20 years from now black women attending college will outnumber their male counterparts by three to one.
Already, black women are getting most of the good jobs. A half-century ago, women filled about a quarter of the management and administrative positions held by blacks; today, they fill just under 60 percent. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the imbalance is even greater in larger firms, where black professional women outnumber men by two to one. Of course, African-American women are not alone in terms of professional advancement. Happily, women of all races have increased their share of college enrollments and management jobs over the last 40 years. But there is one important difference: Among whites and Hispanics, men are still far ahead.
Currently, these changes affect a relatively small number of people—most black female workers are still concentrated in low-paying jobs and are paid, on average, less than either white women or black men. But the assessment of Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson seems apt: African-American women are now “poised to assume leadership in almost all areas of the Afro-American community and to outperform Afro-American men at middle- and upper-class levels of the wider society and economy.” What we’re witnessing, in other words, could be called the feminization of the African-American elite.
In the realm of dating, this creates what must be a frustrating situation for many single women. They are told to expand their search to include less-educated men, younger men, and older men. (In How Stella Got Her Groove Back, another McMillan novel, the heroine finds happiness with a man 20 years her junior). A recent issue of the Tri-State Defender summed up the frustration of a college-educated woman whose friends counseled her to seek out blue-collar men. “Why are we told to marry down?” she wonders. “I want to be in a relationship with someone who is an equal in every way.”
What is remarkable, though, is how many women are marrying down. More than half of black female college graduates are married to men who don’t have degrees (for whites, the figure is 31 percent). Four percent are married to men who haven’t even graduated from high school. For a few, there is the intermarriage option. Although black intermarriage has traditionally been rare, that is beginning to change. But it only worsens the imbalance, since black men are much more likely than black women to marry people of other races.
For other educated black women, the choices are few. Says Walter Farrell, a University of Wisconsin professor who has studied the subject, “The more prominent the successful black woman becomes, the greater the chance she will end up alone.” As a result, professional black women are having fewer children, which means that a growing percentage of black children are being born into less educated, less affluent families.
A number of explanations have been offered for why black women are doing so much better than black men. Some focus on female upbringing. “Historically, in the matriarchal Negro society,” writes former Urban League President Whitney Young, “mothers made sure that if one of their children had a chance for higher education, the daughter was the one to pursue it.” The goal was to spare her from a lifetime of domestic work. In 1940, 60 percent of employed black women worked as domestics, while another 11 percent were farm laborers, with the result that on average black women earned 38 percent as much as white women. World War II changed that by opening up new opportunities in offices and factories. By 1980, only 6 percent worked as domestics, and black women’s earnings were roughly on a par with whites.
For black men, however, things didn’t go as well. Although they made just under half as much as white men in 1940, at least they had access to the well-paying manufacturing jobs that dominated urban labor markets at that time. During the ’60s and early ’70s, their wages rose relative to white men’s, but this progress stopped when many manufacturing firms abandoned urban centers. By 1980, black men earned 26 percent less than their white counterparts, and a good case could be made that it was they, not the women, who most needed help.
In other words, at a time when domestic labor was the predominant form of work among black women, they attended college at the same rate as the men. Later on, when fewer and fewer women worked as domestics, the women’s college attendance soared. On balance, then, it is hard to see how the parental interest in having their daughters avoid domestic work can explain the gender gap in college enrollments.
An alternative explanation focuses on the boys and the harm allegedly done to them by the weakening of the African-American family. Former Senator Daniel Pat Moynihan (D-NY) famously made this argument in his 1965 report on the Negro family. Many black leaders criticized the report for “blaming the victim,” even though Moynihan clearly placed the blame on this nation’s unemployment record and discriminatory history. In any event, his analysis proved prophetic. While a quarter of African-American families were headed by single women in the year Moynihan issued his report, today that fraction has more than doubled to reach 56 percent.
But the argument that single-parent families disproportionately hurt boys is suspect. Girls may not be going to jail in large numbers, but they face their own considerable problems, such as out-of-wedlock childbirth. Today, fully half of black women between the ages of 20 and 24 have children, which most raise on their own. Sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, authors of the authoritative Growing Up with a Single Parent, make a convincing case that girls, not boys, are most damaged by the absence of a parent. Yet, despite these significant obstacles, young black women are attending college in record number.
Another explanation involves what Brookings Institution scholar Joyce Ladner calls the “demonization” of young black males and the adoption of stricter policies toward their antisocial behavior. Today, a disproportionate number of black boys are labeled as hyperactive, prescribed medications such as Ritalin, and assigned to special education classes. Many end up in jail. In 2000, more than one in 10 African-American males between the ages of 25 and 29 were incarcerated (among high school dropouts, more than one in three). Moreover, high black crime rates have done more than just reduce college enrollments. When businesses feel compelled to hire more African Americans, writes Andrew Hacker, they generally pick women because they find them less threatening.
“Unless unforeseen social forces reverse current trends,” writes sociologist Robert Staples, “the future is likely to bring one of the first cases in history where women have achieved superiority over men in the vital areas of education, occupation, and income.” While few people would dispute Staples’s point as it pertains to blacks, there is disagreement over what it signifies. For instance, Robert Hill, author of The Strengths of Black Families, doubts that much will change and cites the example of the black church: Women are in the majority, they head up most of the church clubs and contribute most of the money, yet men make most of the decisions. On the other hand, success in the American economy today is increasingly associated with specialized knowledge and skills, and African-American women have the clear advantage there.
Indeed, they may have too much of an advantage. College-educated women want to find men with similar backgrounds, and the shortage of college-educated men rules that out for many of them. As the education gap widens in the future, marriage rates will continue to drop. More and more of these women will remain childless, and a growing proportion of black children will be born into poor single-parent families, with all the disadvantages attendant on that fact.
Oddly, current government policy may actually be adding to the problem. In an effort to increase welfare recipients’ long-term self-sufficiency, 22 states now help welfare mothers attend college, a form of assistance largely unavailable to the fathers, most of whom are not on welfare.
As it happens, the current round of welfare reform just underway in Washington includes a major campaign to raise marriage rates. Conservatives would like to provide pro-marriage education to children in school and give states financial rewards for increasing marriage rates and reducing divorce. Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation even favors bonuses for at-risk women who avoid getting pregnant until they are married. The only problem is that no one knows how to increase marriage, and the little we do know suggests that it’s not as simple as handing out bonuses to young women who put off child-bearing.
One promising place to start would be increasing the rate of college attendance among African-American men. This will require reexamining many of our education policies, such as the way we deal with boys who act up in school and those who are involved with drugs. Currently 400,000 individuals—mostly young black men—are behind bars on drug charges. One and a half times as many black men are in prison as in college. When they get out, most of them will have trouble finding steady work, and thus becoming reliable fathers to their children. Four years ago, Congress enacted legislation denying college financial aid to anyone convicted of a drug offense, which can only make such matters worse.
But if significant progress is to be made in this area, the African-American community will have to take the lead. And therein lies the problem. The relative position of men and women has always been controversial among blacks, which means that there is no consensus on the nature of the problem or what should be done about it. “There is a crisis in nearly all aspects of gender relations,” writes Orlando Patterson, “and it is getting worse.” In this environment, there is a danger that the higher-education gender gap will be airbrushed over, lest it become an embarrassment to the African-American community.
Black organizations such as the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have never much involved themselves in welfare reform, preferring to let the states and welfare advocacy groups take the lead. But there is no one else to go to bat for black men. Nor can anyone else hope to resolve the gender issues that divide African Americans today. Without pressure from black leaders, the likelihood is that nothing will be done, and that would be a disaster for both the black community and the nation.