C. The Interracial-Marriage Prescription

The upshot of Banks's critique of economically mixed marriage is his interracial-marriage prescription, arguably the most widely discussed--and controversial--aspect of the book. Speaking to middle-class black women, Banks urges them to abandon their desire for intraracial marriage (and the economically mixed marriages that this impulse engenders), and instead consider the prospect of dating and marrying nonblack men.

Leaving aside (for the moment) the degree to which it is actually quite conventional, Banks's interracial-marriage prescription depends on assumptions that are far from settled. For example, in advocating that black women date and marry interracially, Banks suggests that there is a vast pool of eligible nonblack men willing and eager to date and marry black women (p. 128). Anticipating resistance to this claim, he rehearses the traditional accounts that have been used to explain the low rates of interracial dating and marriage among black women and attempts to refute them. In particular, Banks refers to studies of internet dating sites, which have documented members' stated racial preferences for potential dating partners (pp. 123-24). According to one 2009 internet dating study, “black women specifically were the least preferred racial group for white men” (p. 123). The study also found that “when Internet daters were allowed to explicitly exclude certain groups, more than 90 percent of white men who stated racial preferences excluded black women” (p. 123). Further, Banks reports that the operators of OkCupid, an internet dating site, found that of all racial groups, black women sent the most messages initiating contact and received the fewest replies (p. 124).

Banks concedes that these studies confirm that black women are disadvantaged in the interracial dating market, and with white men in particular (p. 124). Nevertheless, he valiantly tries to refute the force of these findings. If some white men do express racial preferences in dating, he muses, they “likely do so for the simple reason that they don't think black women would be attracted to them” (p. 125). Others, he rationalizes, may exclude black women from their dating pool “for reasons of efficiency rather than dislike” (p. 125). Citing a 2009 internet dating study finding that white men who exclude black women from their pool of potential partners are more likely to express a body-type preference, Banks speculates that “[s] ome men might use race as a proxy for weight” (p. 126). He concludes that “[m] en who state a racial preference when their real concern is weight might in fact be open to dating a black woman who is not overweight” (p. 126). Banks also points out that these studies confirm that there are many white men who state no racial preferences for dating at all--men who ostensibly are open to the prospect of dating black women (overweight or not) (p. 127).

Banks's attempts to dismiss the significance of this empirical evidence are unconvincing, especially in view of studies confirming white men's racial preferences for dating partners. In a telephone survey in which 1,116 adult respondents in Southern California were asked if there were racial/ethnic groups they would not marry, M. Belinda Tucker and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan found that white men were more likely to exclude black women than any other race. Indeed, of those who indicated that they would consider race in determining whom to marry, white men's opposition to a black wife (72.5 percent) far exceeded that of white women to a black husband (44.7 percent). As other scholars have discussed, these studies suggest the influence of an aesthetic hierarchy that “positions white women at the top . . . and black women at the bottom.”

Though Banks acknowledges these aesthetic preferences (pp. 121-22), he does not marshal them to help explain black women's disadvantaged position in online dating. Instead, he speculates that simple misunderstandings are at work, understating the extent of white men's interest in, and desire for, black women. But rather than guessing at what white men really mean when they create an online dating profile that excludes black women, Banks could simply credit their preference for nonblack women as just that--a preference. A preference that is perhaps shaped (whether consciously or not) by racial stereotypes and biases, but one that is no less a choice than black women's desire for black men with “swag” whose physical features mirror their own.

Banks's rationalization of these issues reflects his desire to steer black women toward a new romantic frontier populated by eager, if misunderstood, nonblack suitors. But Banks's romantic landscape overlooks the many structural impediments that hinder black women who seek love and marriage outside of their race. For example, Banks does not account for residential segregation as a deterrent to interracial romance. Though the term “residential segregation” conjures up images of redlining and restrictive covenants, it also encompasses specific settlement patterns and preferences among demographic groups. While seemingly innocuous, these residential settlement patterns powerfully shape the nature and quality of romantic encounters. As Russell Robinson observes, “Residential segregation is a primary influence on romantic preferences,” as “living and/or working in a neighborhood or workplace in which one race predominates makes it difficult to connect romantically with a person of a different race.”

These concerns seem particularly pronounced for the black women to whom Banks directs his interracial-marriage prescription. Certainly, some live in intraracial enclaves, making it more difficult to meet and date men of other races. For those who live and work in integrated spaces, the limited numbers of similarly situated couples may deter interracial romance. Though there is growing acceptance of interracial dating and marriage, the phenomenon of residential segregation persists and may thwart the formation of such couples.

For those who do make an interracial love match, the relative dearth of well-integrated communities in which interracial families might comfortably reside may also present challenges--a point that Banks does not explore. In an essay discussing Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case striking down prohibitions on interracial marriage, Bennett Capers considers the importance of Central Point, Virginia, the town where Richard and Mildred Loving met. Anomalous in the 1960s South, Central Point “developed an interesting history of black-white sexual relationships over the years.” Because of this history, Central Point was a place where the Lovings “knew they could live as husband and wife.”

Although interracial unions are increasingly accepted, communities like Central Point, which are more welcoming of interracial relationships, remain rare, and their absence particularly burdens interracial couples. As Capers observes, “Loving happened because the Lovings saw Central Point as a place . . . where they would be welcomed. As a place they could call home.” At the time they brought their landmark lawsuit, the Lovings were living in Washington, D.C., which permitted interracial marriages. But they were not happy in the Nation's capital. Mildred Loving missed her family and “especially [her sister] Garnet.” But beyond yearning for family and friends, it is likely that the Lovings missed “being at home” in Central Point. That is, they missed living in a place where their intertwined hands “drew little attention.”

While there has been considerable progress on these issues since 1967, when the Lovings prevailed in their landmark lawsuit, these kinds of structural impediments may nonetheless pose obstacles to interracial unions. Certainly, not all interracial relationships crumble in the face of these obstacles. But for some, the absence of places like Central Point, where interracial couples feel that they can live comfortably, may complicate the prospect of exploring an interracial romance.

Residential segregation is only one structural pitfall in the romantic landscape that Banks imagines. Others might include the web of laws that form the backdrop of most American workplaces--arguably a highly integrated space in which interracial romances might develop. Though many Americans meet and date prospective partners in the workplace, they do so in the shadow of sexual harassment laws, anti-nepotism policies, and other measures aimed at “sanitizing” the workplace of any sexual or romantic content. Though these laws may effectively curb unwanted overtures between colleagues, they may also deter the formation of welcomed workplace romances. Concerns about running afoul of these laws, and concerns about workplace propriety more generally, may be especially pronounced among those seeking interracial romance, as such romances may be more atypical--and therefore, more visible--in the workplace.

Thus, while Banks's interracial-marriage prescription is an important intervention that relieves black women of the onus of singlehandedly redeeming the black family and black community, dating and marrying interracially may not be as simple as Banks imagines. Despite Banks's explanations, data showing the degree to which black women are disadvantaged in the interracial dating market suggest that nonblack partners may not be as open to dating black women as Banks believes. Further, there are broader structural issues that affect romantic opportunities, and thus should be explored and addressed if Banks's aspirations for interracial marriage are to bear fruit.

In assessing Banks's critique of economically mixed marriages and his interracial-marriage prescription, this Part took Banks and his arguments on their own terms. The following Part, however, shifts focus from the parameters that Banks has drawn to consider questions and challenges that the book implicates but does not address.