Before Ralph Richard Banks came to Chicago recently he said he'd encountered black women — including his own two sisters — who met his new book with suspicion and contempt.
They dismissed "Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone" as just another depressing relationship manual, about how to find Mr. Right and turn him into a husband; and how the black family is under siege and it's the black woman's job to soldier forward.
"I've heard from more than one person who has said it's another attempt to blame black women," said Banks, a Stanford law professor. "They say, 'We've heard this before. I'm so tired of that.' One woman told me, 'I'm going to avoid your book like the plague!'"
But that wasn't the response last week when he addressed about 90 people at the artsy Experimental Station in the Woodlawn neighborhood. Successful black women, many in their late 30s and beyond, dominated the audience.
Though there was a handful of polite detractors, the majority of the women seemed eager to learn more about Banks' controversial solution to their relationship woes. He suggests black women date and marry outside of their race.
He said studies show black women are least likely of any group to date interracially, but they should relinquish the notion that they have to rescue the brothers, or save the race. They should explore the rainbow, as quite a few of their black male counterparts have done.
Although marriage has been a declining proposition for all Americans over the last 50 years, rates have fallen precipitously among blacks. And some of the biggest challenges facing black women seeking black men stem from a persistent success gap:
•Twice as many black women as black men graduate from college.
•One in 10 black men is in prison.
Black men who are doing well are in such short supply and high demand that some have few incentives to be monogamous. Banks said that if black women expand their playing field, they take back their power.
He told the group that this type of power struggle isn't particular to blacks.
"On college campuses where men (no matter their race) are scarce, they also have relationships that are less monogamous," he said.
"People argue that racism has produced many of the disparities and the way to fight it is to come together and build strong families. But that effort has failed."
Some women at last Thursday's event took notes. Some tweeted. Many nodded their approval. A woman seated next to me began unfurling her money from her purse to purchase the book long before the event ended. Another, in a back row, jumped to her feet to comment.
"This book is outstanding," said Stephanie Bass, 51, a business consultant who has never been married. "I'm sick and tired of books on how to keep my man. He needs to know how to keep me. I'm surprised by how many women have given up their power."
So, in Chicago at the Experimental Station, the Stanford law professor — who'd been rebuffed by other black women — had become the Stanford love professor for a group of women primed for his little experiment.
Banks said black women may discover they will have better relationships with men, regardless of race, whose education and income levels are similar to their own. The paradox is that this might be the jolt that some black men need to get their act together.
As I sat there listening, it appeared I was in the minority. I've been married for 22 years to a black man (who's an attorney). And though I've got several black girlfriends
who are married to wonderful black men, I also have several black single girlfriends who have never been married.
But here's the thing: Of my single girlfriends, I don't recall any of them saying they wouldn't date a man who wasn't black. And, yet, some women
do feel they need anything from a gentle nudge to full-out permission to do so.
"I was one of those sisters who wanted to stay true to black men," Jonitia Epison, 49, told me minutes before the event started. She has an MBA and has been divorced for about 22 years. "But I'm here to find out: How do I step outside of my race and be accepted by someone else?"
Banks, 46, told me in an interview before the event that most people want to know what gives an ivy tower academic the street cred to write about such intimate topics in the black community.
People who haven't seen him wonder if he's black (yes); whether he's married (yes); and if his wife is black (yes).
Banks, who teaches on family law and race matters, will tell you that he didn't write an advice book, and the title comes from an article a journalist wrote about a visit to a class of black students.
"The students were talking about learning how to be good parents and (the journalist) said, 'OK, I'll bring in some married couples,' and one child said, 'We don't care about the marriage part, we want to know about parenting,'" Banks said. "And another child said, 'Yeah, marriage is for white people.'"
Banks said he was troubled by the sentiment and decided to examine it as a question: Is marriage for white people?
He told me that he wrote the book out of his frustration that most books on marriage were written about whites. And books about blacks have focused on the "underclass," where the marriage gap is the most pronounced.
"There was nothing about the black middle class that connects the experience of blacks to other Americans," said Banks.
The book took Banks 10 years to complete and combines research and personal anecdotes in a way that's engaging. But the book is not at all, as he puts it, "relentlessly upbeat." He acknowledges that it was a tough book for him to write.
"I talk about black women and the high abortion rates and high rates of sexually transmitted infections," he said. "A lot of the disparities are related to the marriage issue."
He said many of the social problems he confronts in the book, such as male joblessness and children born out of wedlock, have increased among other racial groups, but are more acute among blacks.
Last week, he told the audience he understands that suggesting black women date outside of their race is just one piece to a complex puzzle. Although the younger generation in general has fewer hang-ups about interracial dating, folk in their late 30s and beyond may have a tougher go of it.
They may worry more about family members and friends who may not be too accepting of their nonblack partners. One black man also pointed out that some white men just aren't attracted to black women. Banks said indeed there are obstacles.
But Epison said she's now willing to navigate them.
"I'm not angry at black men, but it's a small pot that most of us are competing for," she said. "I want to know what white men are thinking. I've never put myself out there like that and the book has inspired me to do so."