Inequalities of Love: College-Educated Black Women and the Barriers to Romance and Family

Inequalities of Love: College-Educated Black Women and the Barriers to Romance and Family


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Inequalities of Love uses the personal narratives of college-educated black women to describe the difficulties they face when trying to date, marry, and have children. While conventional wisdom suggests that all women, regardless of race, must sacrifice romance and family for advanced educations and professional careers, Averil Y. Clarke’s research reveals that educated black women’s disadvantages in romance and starting a family are consequences of a system of racial inequality and discrimination. The author analyzes the accounts of black women who repeatedly return to incompatible partners as they lose hope of finding “Mr. Right” and reject unwed parenting because it seems to affirm a negative stereotype of black women’s sexuality that is inconsistent with their personal and professional identities. She uses national survey data to compare college-educated black women’s experiences of romance, reproduction, and family to those of less-educated black women and those of white and Hispanic women with degrees. She reports that degreed black women’s lives include less marriage and sex, and more unwanted pregnancy, abortion, and unwed childbearing than college-educated white and Hispanic women. Black women’s romantic limitations matter because they constitute deprivation and constraint in romance and because they illuminate important links between race, class, and gender inequality in the United States. Clarke’s discussion of the inequities that black women experience in romance highlights the connections between individuals’ sexual and reproductive decisions, their performance of professional or elite class identities, and the avoidance of racial stigma.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822350088
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/11/2011
Series: Politics, History, and Culture Series
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Averil Y. Clarke is a sociologist living in New Haven, Connecticut.

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College-Educated Black Women and the Barriers to Romance and Family


Copyright © 2011 Averil Y. Clarke
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5008-8

Chapter One

School Makin' It

WHEN I INTERVIEWED Jacqueline (age thirty) about her degree attainment and family formation processes, she had some friends staying with her in the house where she, her husband, and her young son lived. The friends were also a young, black, married couple that had recently started a family (only in this case, the mother had had a girl). The foursome had been brought together by the two husbands, who pledged the same chapter of one of the historically black fraternities while they were in college; my subject subsequently became fast friends with the wife of her husband's fraternity brother. But Jacqueline did not feel particularly close to the fraternity brother and had not shared many of the details of her childhood with him. And so it was only after about an hour into the interview, when this man and her husband left the room next to the one in which we were seated in order to take the children to the park, that she abruptly interrupted our conversation to return to an earlier question. She now had a more forthright and detailed response to my query about when she first became aware of the fact that she was going to go to college. It went like this:

My father was definitely an alcoholic. And it was really tough. I mean-And the home life could get really hectic. He drank a lot, and my mom—... It's true that my parents did spend a lot of time dealing with my sister, um, and helping her get through school. But my mother had to deal with her and whatever issues my father brought up. So one of the questions that you asked earlier about how did I know that I was gonna go to college? When I was in sixth grade I had made up my mind I was getting out of that house, one way or another. I think due to my sixth grade teacher, I think because of the AP classes where everybody was tellin' me, you know, get ready for your SATs and so on and so forth, I made a conscious choice that how I was gonna get out was through college. And I'm really thankful for that because kids decide to get out in a lot of different ways: you know kids say, "I'm gonna get pregnant; I'm gonna do drugs," you know, whatever. But that was very important to me: I knew I had to get out. So, I mean, that's ... That is a bad way, I think ... for a kid to have to go through that, but it got me to college.

Since Jacqueline's interview happened when I was approximately two-thirds of the way into my sample, I was not surprised that she had this sordid story underneath the more conventional one about advanced or honors classes and parents who kept a strict eye on their children's educational processes. By this point I had run into others whose upbringings had included fairy-tale-like horrors and who had quite deftly linked them to their college-matriculation-based escape from these all too problematic home lives. I had already run into Jamie, a victim of sexual abuse, and talked with Claire about how her father's series of extramarital affairs led to her mother's ongoing resentment and pattern of ignoring Claire and her younger siblings. These women were plentiful enough to constitute a category of experience—or what I saw as an unconventional category of experience—that motivated and led to degree attainment. What remained for me at that point was to determine why such a thing should matter to inequality study. Why should a route to degree attainment spurred on by familial neglect or abuse change what I, or any other inequality scholar for that matter, believed about processes of class differentiation and middleclass family formation behavior?

The discovery that the experiences and values that lead to degree attainment in a sample of fifty-eight college-educated women are varied is thus an argument about the multiple ways educated elites can be in the world—about the myriad reasons they have for seeking the degree and the varied outcomes that they hope to attain. This discovery indicates that there are multiple selves that seek the degree and multiple behavioral performances associated with this middle-class professional status. Jacqueline experienced discomfort in her family of upbringing and came to value the attainment of a degree as a promise of escape. But others had different experiences and different values (for example, family loyalty, commitment to education, fear of ridicule or being ostracized) and attained their degrees and achieved middle-class status for quite different reasons. My story about who these educational haves are is thus also a claim about how unequal lives are constituted—about the multiple means by which middle-class outcomes are generated. In the description of multiple selves below, I argue that Jacqueline's need to return to a question about college and to answer it by disclosing her painful upbringing shows the connection between some sampled women's experiences in their familial contexts and the motivations and values that surrounded their degree-attainment behavior. This conceptualization of status attainment articulates with aspects of Pierre Bourdieu's theory of class formation and class relations (Bourdieu 1977a, 1977b, 1984; Bourdieu and Passeron 1977/1990).

Below I report that Jacqueline is one of nine subjects with horrific family lives during childhood; I say that these nine women's interest in degree attainment is linked to these family experiences; and I label the nine subjects whose degree-attainment process can be described in this way as "conforming escape artists." In other words, below I engage in an analytical technique known as typology creation. This chapter presents a list and descriptions of the "types" of degreed black women I encountered during the interview portion of my study. It says that there are multiple—or at least seven—logics of degree attainment in this sample and evidences this by illuminating the different sets of motivations and constraints that surrounded these women's educational achievements. It also suggests that one of the more famous typologies (Merton 1957)—one that classifies individuals' values and the means taken to attain those things that they value—can and should be developed beyond the focus on economic motivations and productive sector behaviors.

Merton (1957) was concerned with describing the range of individual responses to life in an economic system where high social rewards are promised but limitations exist on the number of people who are able to achieve these rewards. In his understanding, an unequal social system with existing but limited opportunities for upward mobility creates both conformists (individuals with conventional social values who take the socially acceptable routes to attaining those things that they value) and innovators (individuals with conventional social values who use socially unacceptable means like criminal activity to attain those ends). In such a system, according to Merton, we can also observe the ritualists who go through conventional motions even though they have lost sight of the values to which these conventional modes of behavior are attached (like the always-on-time, punch-the-clock worker who can barely afford new clothes and never takes a sick day or vacation) and the retreatists who have withdrawn from society and rejected both conventional social values and means (like religious cult leaders and their followers). Merton's rebels reject society's dominant values and means to attaining those ends, but rather than retreat they remain with the goal of restructuring the society. My introduction of the "conforming escape artist," as well as the six other types of degreed black women whom I uncovered, both adds to and alters the picture that Merton (1957) creates. It adds the dimension of experience; it elaborates upon and perhaps diversifies the list of valued ends to which highly rewarded individuals aspire; and it complicates individuals' lives by allowing them to emerge from and pursue lives beyond the labor market.

My scientific "discovery" of the conforming escape artist began during the interview stage of my research, when the strange tale of one woman's degree attainment despite her abusive family background became several women's sensible sounding stories of a slow, steady, and sure route out of a bad situation. It continued with an analysis of transcribed interview data that collected and categorized all the decisions respondents made that established the four-year college degree as a goal, maintained that goal, or advanced them toward that goal. Looking at the similarities in women's experiences and motivations around decision-making junctures produced a description of seven types—or seven combinations of "experiences" and "valued ends"—that led this sample of degreed black women to college matriculation. The "types" discovered thusly represent types of conditions and motivations from which women's decisions emerge. Consequently, women's life trajectories often reflect several of the seven "types" of decisions, and some of the women carry more than one label.

It remains questionable whether these combinations of experiences and valued ends are generalizable beyond the sample of women whom I interviewed—whether a broader group of degreed black women or a racially diverse sample of college-educated men and women would demonstrate the same experiences and values around their decision making with the same frequencies I observed. After all, my sample was a sample of convenience—men and women whom I knew referred me to women whom they knew fit the study criteria (black, college educated, under the age of fifty), and these women referred me to women whom they knew, and so on. Furthermore, I collected this "snowball sample" of interviewees from just two urban areas—both in the northeastern United States. These cities are different enough from one another: one of them ranks among the largest in the United States (that is, it had over one million residents in 2000) and has a relatively high proportion of African Americans (that is, over 40 percent in 2000) while the other is considerably smaller (that is, under 200,000 people) with roughly half the percentage of black residents. But they both share heavy industrial pasts and experienced late twentieth-century declines in manufacturing that severely affected the working-class black residents of these and other northeastern and midwestern cities. Degreed black women and other college-educated individuals who currently reside in the newer service-economy-oriented cities of the south and west or in rural areas may prove to be more or less motivated by the economic factors highlighted by Merton in their college decision making than the women discussed here. They may experience greater or fewer of the types of experiences that are associated with Jacqueline's conforming escape artist behavior. Nonetheless, the importance of discussing the ways these women's experiences, values, and degreed outcomes are connected lies in the degree to which this discussion complicates our sense of who Jacqueline is and, by extension, our understanding of what sort of stuff middle-class status attainment and middle-class women's family achievements are made of.

Decisions about Love

Individuals either have or don't have a conventional love of money and the things that money can buy. Their social locations either do or do not afford them the opportunity to be trained and hired for highly rewarding jobs. Or at least so says Merton's typology of economic values and means. In such a typology (see table 1), one cannot help but call Jacqueline a conformist: her career outcome of pharmacist and her educational outcome of college and pharmacology degrees indicate that she is one of those types of people who values money (for example, she makes a relatively high salary) and who has been afforded the opportunity to achieve the things that money can buy through socially acceptable means (for example, she was admitted to college and professional school, passed a licensing examination, and was hired by a firm). But in this book's typology, which includes experiences and results from an analysis of qualitative data on how degreed individuals did what they did and understood their actions, Jacqueline is framed a bit differently.

Focusing only on the apparent conformists (that is, Merton's conformists) enables us to look at whether these college-educated women's degree-attainment decisions truly emerged from their desire for the things that money can buy and their recognition and use of opportunities to acquire these high social rewards legally. Such a focus and a look at her words that open the chapter tell us that Jacqueline does not so much value high social rewards as she wants to "[get] out of that house." And as we will see below, she does not so much choose socially acceptable education as a means to achieving valued ends as she is forced into higher education by the particular boundaries and features of her childhood in "that house." Achievement that in Merton's framework seems to be based in normative economic motivation, the "pull" of high social rewards, and the more or less exclusive structural opportunity to achieve these rewards through normative engagement with the formal labor market is here shown to be linked to reproductive relations more so than productive ones. In other words, Jacqueline's claims about her desires and the conditions under which she makes degree-supporting decisions indicate that such decisions can be about love (albeit a non-romantic and more familial dimension of love) as well as money.

When Love Hurts

My conforming escape artists are so typed by an experience dimension—for example, the inhospitable circumstances in the homes of their upbringing—and a value dimension—for example, a motivation to achieve and maintain households and/or families that are independent from those of their parents. (See table 2) As Jacqueline's words above maintain, these women's degree-attainment decisions are most clearly linked to the painful experiences that permeate their familial relations. Their discussions of college aspirations and applications and of homework and work toward careers are explicitly and specifically tied to this pain.

Conforming escape artists are victims of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse; they live with the dysfunctional behavior of an alcoholic, gambling, or philandering parent; they are raised by parents who tend to remain married despite severe marital problems and who neglect their daughters because they are preoccupied with their own mental health issues or involved in codependent relationships with spouses who engage in one of the addictive behaviors discussed above. And they provide all of these details about the painful experiences of their childhood home lives in the context of interview answers that are ostensibly about the whys and hows of their engagement with degree-supporting activities. The pain of life in these families is such a salient aspect of the conforming escape artist's motivation to attend college that Jacqueline needed to return to my question about college (and not about her family life while growing up) an hour after she had supposedly answered it: she stopped and reversed herself in order to make an all-important connection between higher education and this painful experience.

While the experience dimension of the conforming escape artist—familial pain—is salient and specific, the value dimension remains vague and diffuse. Jacqueline talked about "getting out of that house"; another interviewee, Tracey, maintained that she wished to "get married and get away from her father and stepmother"; and Jamie, whose story is told below, says she wanted to "go away and never come back." That these women wanted to escape is clear. And so too are the painful experiences from which they sought escape. But just what these women wished to escape to—the ends that they value—usually remains poorly defined. What I have surmised from their collective words and actions around the specific escapes that they have crafted is that they sought independence (financial and emotional) from those situations of their childhoods as well as an ability to create less painful household and familial relationships of their choosing. They want to end up in geographic and social spaces that are distinct from the places in which they were reared. For conforming escape artists, the painful experiences in their childhood homes determines what they value in the sense that it sets up a model of all the things they do not want. But the lack of specificity around their valued ends suggests that economic factors do not "pull," direct, or motivate them toward degree attainment in the way that Merton's theoretical understanding of his conformists suggests. Instead, these women are "pushed" into degree attainment by familial pain.

When one considers breaking curfew to hang out with friends, drinking, partying, getting high, or just plain running away, those activities that eventually add up to four-year-degree attainment (for example, working hard in school, spending extra time with teachers, and thinking in sixth grade about applying to college six years later) hardly seem like the fastest, easiest, or most direct way for youth to get away from problematic home lives. Nevertheless, we should refrain from praising escape artists for their ability to see, value, and craft a conformist future. Rather, connecting their experiences and valued ends to the attainment of a degree (or degrees) and professional careers is about appreciating the way in which their problematic familial relations limited the terms under which escape would be permitted. Below I describe how their gendered positioning in their families as surrogate caretakers and domestic servants constrained them to an escape route characterized by schooling and professional development.

Escape artists would have run away if they could have. They did not do so because they had non-permissive parents with long lists of rules and regulations that were not to be transgressed. Jamie (age thirty-two) was sexually abused by her father, a well-respected bank executive and board member of multiple community organizations. In her one-bedroom apartment more than a thousand miles away from the middle-class suburban home in which she grew up and to which she has never returned, she described the strict environment of her childhood home. It was this environment that limited her strategy of escape to "keeping [her] grades up" and "getting accepted to any school [she] wanted to get into, preferably the farthest one away." She stated, "My mother would lock us up in the room and leave us all day or lock us outside of the house and leave us all day. She wouldn't cook. You know, she would lock up the food, you know, and put chains and locks on the freezer ... A lot of the time, we didn't eat. You know ... it was a punishment, if we did something wrong, and somebody was always doing something wrong, you go to bed and you didn't eat."


Excerpted from INEQUALITIES OF LOVE by AVERIL Y. CLARKE Copyright © 2011 by Averil Y. Clarke. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

List of Tables xi

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction Inequality: What's Love Got to Do with It? 1

one School: Makin' It 41

2 Family: Unequal Roads to It 89

3 Marriage: "I Do" It When and If I Can 115

4 Sex: Is Everybody Doing It? 159

5 Contraception: To Plan It or Not to Plan It 193

6 Abortion: The Usefulness of It 231

conclusion Love Notes 271

Appendix 287

Notes 317

References 371

Index 403

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