By SHERYL McCARTHY
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
Black women have heard a lot of bad news about themselves over the years, but lately things have been looking up.
According to federal census figures released last week, black women with college degrees earn slightly more overall than college-educated white women. The reason for the difference isn't clear, and some are saying it's because black women work longer hours and for longer periods of time than their white counterparts. But whatever the explanation, the fact that black women have bested white women on a positive economic indicator is good news, certainly better than if the numbers were reversed.
Add this to last year's census finding that college-educated black women have a higher marriage rate than black women without college degrees, and the recent news goes totally against what we've come to believe is true.
The perceived wisdom is that, regardless of their education or economic level, there are so few good marriage prospects among the pool of available black men, that black women's marriage chances are far worse than their chances of being killed by a terrorist -- and only get worse the more highly educated they become. Now we know this isn't true. Elaina Rose, an economics professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, notes that this could be because educated black women with good jobs are seen as better marriage prospects by potential suitors.
What's most encouraging about these findings is that they send a clear message to young black women about the payoff to staying in school and going on to college. Granted, black parents have always counseled their daughters to prepare to take care of themselves, since they're less likely than white women to find men who can do it for them. But now there's data showing an advantage to getting a college degree, not only in terms of financial security, but in terms of improving one's marriage prospects.
I love these statistics, especially since for so long black women have listened to the drumbeat that says we disproportionately make up the ranks of welfare queens and unwed teenage mothers. Several years ago I went to the opening of a Dress for Success store in the Bronx. This is an organization that gives free business clothing to women who are trying to get back into the work world, usually after having been sidelined onto public assistance. I was struck by the fact that every one of the young women I met who was using the service told me the same story: She had gotten pregnant and dropped out of high school, and was now trying to get back on her feet. The clear message was that if you want to run your life seriously off track, getting pregnant and dropping out of school is a great way to do it.
Too many black girls are still following this route, but there are indicators that many others have gotten the message. The pregnancy rate for black teenagers is still twice as high as it is for white girls, but it has been dropping at a faster rate than for any other ethnic group. And there's more good news: Black teenage girls smoke cigarettes at a significantly lower rate than white or Hispanic girls.
What's even better is that they're going to college in increasing numbers, far outstripping black males. In 2001 more than 1.1 million black women were enrolled in college, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, compared with 635,000 black men.
It's true that, no matter what their educational accomplishments or economic status, black women are less likely than white women to marry, but getting more education increases their prospects. And it allows them to equal and even surpass white women in earning power.
I'm sure there will be efforts to downplay these findings -- to say that black women overall are still less well off than women from other groups -- more likely to be poor, uneducated and unattached. And it's all true. But these numbers also testify to the power that black women have to make their lives considerably better. And it's a message I hope black girls will take to heart.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service