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So Single Black Men Want Commitment. Really?

Fun Friday tip: Gather your friends for a rousing game of searching iStockPhoto for images of "African-Americans"  + "dating" (swap in your own ethnicity for maximum fun).
Fun Friday tip: Gather your friends for a rousing game of searching iStockPhoto for images of "African-Americans" + "dating" (swap in your own ethnicity for maximum fun).

We recently found that single black men were much more likely to say they were looking for a long-term relationship (43 percent) compared to single black women (25 percent).

Those numbers come from our big poll of African-Americans' views of their lives and communities (the poll was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health). Our findings about the dating lives of single folks — that is, respondents 18-49, widowed, divorced, or never married — have sparked the most conversation so far.

And the gender skew has elicited straight-out side-eyes.

A lot of people wondered just what was going on, because the prevailing story is that black women cannot find black men who are interested in a relationship. (And if we're keeping it one hundred, these results sparked some arguments among the Code Switch team.)

So here are some additional ideas about what might explain this discrepancy. As our poll makes clear: it's hardly that neat.

1. The Financial Stability Theory.

When we asked Robert Blendon, one of the poll's co-directors, what might explain this gap, he pointed to research that has shown black folks care more about the economic cost-benefit analysis of partnering up.

"African-Americans were more concerned with financial security than whites or Hispanics when they considered marriage," Blendon said.

So why might that matter? Blendon said that black women are outpacing black men in college attendance and completion, as well as as the attainment of postgraduate degrees. (Women in general are more likely to get degrees, but it's even more pronounced among black folks: two-thirds of all bachelor's degrees awarded to African-Americans in 2009-2010 went to women.) Assuming that our female respondents are looking for equally educated black men as partners, there may be real worry about the economic prospects of their pool of partners. (Only about four percent of respondents identified themselves as LGBT.)

But if we also think about the division of household labor, which in the United States means women bear a larger share of domestic responsibilities, then a long-term relationship might seem unappealing to many women. (A federal study from 2011 showed married women reporting to have much less leisure time on a daily basis than do men, doing a whole lot more housework, and doing the lion's share of the child-rearing.)

It's possible that our single women respondents are taking all of this into account and finding the prospect of a long-term relationship wanting. (Alas, we don't have numbers for other racial groups, and no basis for comparison.)

2. The What-Do-You-Mean-By-Long-Term-Relationship Theory.

This is the theory we heard most often. Maybe people have very different definitions of "long-term relationship."Put another way: men want relationships, not marriage.

That's what Milton Appling, a single Brooklynite, told NPR's Chris Johnsonwhen asked for his thoughts on the findings. "If 'long-term relationship' means headed to marriage as a final step, as opposed to X years and we'll see what happens, then that's very different," he said. "Men in general, when they hear that term, do not necessarily mean 'marriage.' Marriage is marriage."

Danielle Belton, writing at Clutch, also wondered about the choice of words. "Commitment does not necessarily equal 'marriage,' which is what I know many of my friends, including myself, say they eventually want," she wrote. "Sure, I have no doubt that there [is many a man] who thinks life would be easier if the rent could be split, if sex was easy and plentiful, if sandwiches were made and always abundant while still having that escape clause because nobody has any papers on each other."

But the poll's respondents saw this question much more clearly. We asked the people who said they were looking for a long-term relationship if they wanted to be married. Almost all of them — 98 percent — said they did.

(Belton also wondered if singles answered differently depending on their ages, and wanted a deeper dive. "I don't know about you, but I don't know a lot of people near 50 who can relate to someone barely out of high school, let alone share their dating aspirations," she wrote. So I turned to Harvard's Kathleen Weldon for clarity. She worked on the poll. And her response: "We only have it broken down in two categories — the youngest two categories used in the general poll, so 18-29 and 30-49. But those show no statistically significant difference by age.")

3. The "Bradley Effect" Theory.

Back in 1982, Tom Bradley, L.A.'s first black mayor, was running for governor of California. Polls had shown him with a pretty sizable lead over his opponent, George Deukmejian. One newspaper even projected Bradley as the winner during election night.

But when the results came in, Bradley had lost. How?

One theory started to gain traction — white respondents, wary of being labeled racist, gave pollsters the response that they felt was most socially acceptable. This idea became known as "The Bradley Effect." (It's worth noting that this theory's been hotly debated since it was coined. We use the term without taking a stand, one way or another.)

Many commenters wondered if the Bradley Effect was in play here — in other words, respondents were fronting for pollsters to look "good." Could they have been trying to avoid coming across as no-'count, triflin' commitment-phobes?

Conversely, female respondents might have been erring in the other direction – maybe they weren't trying to come across as desperate, marriage-obsessed, single women.

But this whole idea of a dating Bradley Effect rests on a notion that no matter what the poll says, men are wary of romantic commitment while women are especially focused on getting into them.

Which brings us to our last theory...

4. Occam's Razor.

You know the theory of Occam's razor: the simplest explanation is probably the best.

Let's consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the poll results are spot-on accurate.

And maybe the prevailing conventional wisdom about what black women and black men want is just wrong.

This seems to be both the most obvious possibility, yet it seems to be the one to which people are most resistant. We accept — nay, we embrace — the idea/trope/stereotype that women want nothing more than to find a nice dude to settle down with. And dudes will avoid commitment at all costs, unless they're dragged kicking and screaming to the altar. This idea is everywhere.

A few years ago, there seemed to be a geyser of stories about the problems black women had in finding partners — stories that often seemed based on a flimsy, threadbare premise. ("Resolved: Census data shows there are more black women than black men: RESPOND!") And sure, those stories made for great happy hour and brunch conversation fodder — and by "great," I really mean exhausting and eternal — because it allowed everyone to kvetch and generalize and swap dating war stories. But anecdata often make rickety foundations for grand social explanations, even when those ideas rake in the pageviews and book sales. Even when they feel true.

Maybe the truth really is that lots of black men really do want to get boo'ed up while lots of black women are ambivalent.

People felt strongly, on a visceral level, that the poll results were off. But maybe what's off are our assumptions about what black women and men really want.

Which of these theories holds most sway with you? Are there others we haven't considered?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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