Can Marriage Be Saved? | The Nation


Can Marriage Be Saved?

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IT'S HARD TO REGULATE AFFAIRS of the heart. That's one reason segregation remains so deeply entrenched within American society. If people fail to come into contact with one another as equals across differences of class, race, ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, sexual orientation and religion, they are unlikely to grant one another full humanity. You can't love someone you have no opportunity to meet.

Love is one thing--marriage is an entirely different story. Most people are pressured to get married, and one fundamental rule governs this process--marry someone of the same race and different gender. In the US context, where race and class are so tightly bundled together, obeying the "same race" rule typically upholds existing social class arrangements. Because wealth and poverty are passed down through families, policing marriage keeps families racially homogeneous, virtually insuring that affluent white Americans will retain family assets and that black Americans disproportionately experience intergenerational economic disadvantage. Because the "different gender" rule installs heterosexuality as the preferred form of sexual expression, in a context that denies gay marriage, getting married becomes a mechanism for upholding gender norms of masculinity and femininity and for certifying heterosexuality.

The "same race, different gender" rule thus serves as one critical site for reproducing inequality. Segregate people into boxes of ghettos, barrios, closets, private households and prisons, rank the boxes as being fundamentally separate and unequal, and keep the entire system intact by scaring people to stay inside their boxes. Mystify these arrangements with ideologies of race, class, gender and sexuality. Encourage individuals to grant humanity only to those in their own segregated boxes. Reward them for dehumanizing, objectifying and, upon occasion, demonizing everyone else. Punish them for breaking the rules.

So how should we think about marriage and its rules? Some argue that breaking the rules is inherently transgressive, that refusing to marry or defying the "same race, different gender" code is the path to social transformation. Yet individual choice, no matter how heartfelt, can never get at the deeply entrenched structural nature of American social inequality. Interracial marriage has hardly made a dent in intergenerational black poverty. Others see saving marriage as critical. Choosing to commit to another human being through marriage can buffer us from the alienation of rampant individualism. Yet the rules that govern marriage limit our success in finding committed love. For now, marriage rules, until we decide to change it.

Patricia Hill Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, is the author of Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (Routledge).

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