THE BLOG
01/14/2015 09:09 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Rethinking the 'Problems With Black Marriage'

As many have wondered why Camille Cosby continues to stand by her husband, Bill, in the wake of so many allegations of sexual abuse -- including me -- the comedian recently was defended by the woman who played his TV wife, Phylicia Rashad. And so was Camille. "This is a tough woman, a smart woman," Rashad said of Cosby's wife of 50 years. "She's no pushover."

Of course Camille would be described as a "tough" woman; that's what we expect black women to be, according to "Black Marriage Through the Prism of Gender Race, and Class," a new study by Kecia R. Johnson, an assistant professor at Florida State University, and Karyn Loscocco, a sociologist at the University of Albany. And yet black women's strength is often seen as a negative and perhaps even damaging to black men, the study notes.

For anyone who is worried about the "problems of black marriage" -- the lack of marriageable black men, the rise of single unwed black moms, the dismal statistics that indicate black marriages are hard to maintain -- the study is an illuminating exploration of the challenges for black couples, especially black wives, and why someone like Oprah -- a strong, independent and highly successful woman and, yes, a black woman -- might choose not to marry. The problem is using a white, middle-class model of marriage as the ideal for black romantic couples, the researchers note.

As Camille herself has said, many of America's institutions have been shaped by racism and prejudice, and the institution of marriage is -- surprise -- no different.

That creates unique challenges for black marriages:

When people reason from an unquestioned White model of marriage and relationships, they often end up suggesting that there is something pathological about the marital patterns of Blacks. Yet using the race/gender prism, it is just as easy to construct an argument that these patterns are logical and pioneering.

Slavery, they note, radically altered what work and family roles looked like for black women. Being a wife or mother in an intact family and doing what women were expected to do -- caring for "home and hearth" -- was not possible for enslaved women, although they were able to accomplish that and more in African societies. Meanwhile, black men were no better able to fulfill their expected marital roles -- they were denied even the most basic ways to provide for their family, even after the abolition of slavery.

Well, OK, that was so long ago. True, but that history has helped shaped the reality of black marriage, even today. Excluding blacks from some of the basics necessary to create what society might consider "normal, healthy" marriages means that their marriages would somehow never measure up. "Black communities are depicted as comprised of 'weak' men and women who are 'too strong,'" the researchers note. Sadly, many -- including black leaders, celebrity authors like Steve Harvey as well as the church, a central part of black American lives -- would rectify that by having blacks accept traditional gender ideology, which would strengthen "weak" black men and weaken strong black women (although a strong black woman would be welcome, of course, to use her strength solely to bolster her man). Much of what's talked about as the "problems of black marriage" can be somehow "solved" by moving black men out of subordinated masculinity, the researchers say. And guess who is expected to do that?

The message to Black women is that their assertiveness is holding back Blacks, especially men. It devalues a history of Black female financial independence from men and the constant, self-sacrificing economic and emotional contributions that women have made to Black families. This message also moves analysis away from the structural causes of Black social problems. An unintended consequence is that Black women's dominance and strength are interpreted by both Blacks and Whites as pathological, contributing to the oppression of Black women.

That places an extra-heavy burden on black women and puts the focus on gender while ignoring racism and sexism. Heterosexual marriage is already a gendered social reality and gendered institution, with wives and husbands ending up with "his" and "her" marriages. Throw racism on top of that and, well ...

All of which makes Oprah's decision to reject tying the knot with Stedman Graham, her steady partner of nearly three decades, understandable; she realizes that marriage would change what she and Stedman have, and not necessarily for the better:

(H)e's a traditional man and this is a very untraditional relationship. I think it's acceptable as a relationship, but if I had the title 'wife,' hmmmm. I think there would be some other expectations of what a wife is and what a wife does. First of all you gotta come home sometimes.

Oprah isn't the only black woman choosing not to wed, although black women who choose to remain single are judged -- and judge themselves -- harshly. But as some suggest, black women's "failure to live up to dominant (White) femininity makes them less marriageable than White and Asian women, and also Black men." Even in interracial marriages, 73 percent are made up of black men with white women and 86 percent are black men and Asian women.

And as Johnson and Loscocco note, married black couples are at greater risk of divorce; they have lower marital happiness and satisfaction than white spouses; they disagree more than white spouses about such things as sex, kids and money; and black women get less benefits from marriage than white women and even black men do. It would be foolish to think that racism has nothing to do with that; of course it does.

Still, the authors say if we remove the white, middle-class blinders of marriage, we'd see aspects of black marital patterns that are not only logical, but also "egalitarian, empowering and pioneering," which could potentially "undo gender." Black marriages tend to be more egalitarian when it comes to household chores, and marriage for blacks isn't nearly as "greedy" an institution as it is for whites because black couples, especially black wives, tend to be "weight-bearing arches of their broader communities" in addition to caring for their own family.

But using black marriages as a model to "undo gender" is unlikely to happen. "(R)ather than sanctioning other family forms, American society continues to hold everyone accountable to the norm of gender differentiated marriage."

Maybe it's time to rethink that.

A version of this post appeared on Vicki Larson's blog, OMG Chronicles. Interested in learning about ways to marry for success or re-create your marriage? Read "The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels" (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.