(Re)Envisioning Cohabitation: A Commentary
on Race, History, and Culture
Andrea G. Hunter
Universal of North Carolina at Greensboro
To some listening to such a conversation, gumbo ya ya may sound like chaos. We may be better able to understand it as something other than confusion if we overlay it with jazz, for gumbo ya ya is the essence of a musical tradition where ‘the various voices in a piece of music may go their own ways but still be held together by their relationship to each other. ’ (Brown, 1991, p. 85)
The rate of cohabitation in the United States, like western Europe, has been another component of the noteworthy transformations in marriage and childbearing that have taken place over the last several decades (Smock & Gupta, chap. 4, this volume). Although the increase in cohabitation cuts across the U. S. population, there are significant variations across racial and ethnic groups that parallel the differences described by Kiernan (chap. 1, this volume) in her cross-national comparisons of western Europe. African Americans spend more of their adult lives loving and raising children in nonmarital cohabitating unions or in other nonmarital partnerships than do non-Blacks (Hunter, 1997; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995a). Although the rate of cohabitation among African Americans is only modestly higher than the rate of cohabitation among Whites, Blacks are less likely to convert cohabitating unions to marriage (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; London, 1991; Manning & Smock, 1995). African Americans are also more likely to have children in cohabitating unions but are less likely to marry to “legitimize” these births than are Whites (Loomis & Landale, 1994; Manning, 1993). These patterns have spawned a lively investigation of the sources of racial differences in cohabitation and its relationship to “traditional” patterns in marriage and childbearing.
Recent studies of cohabitation among African Americans have been framed by the dramatic transformations in marriage and childbearing that have taken place in this population since 1960 (Ellwood & Crane, 1990; Heaton & Jacobsen, 1994; Walker, 1988). Much of this work has focused on the role of economic and demographic factors (e.g., male unemployment and wages, public aid, and sex ratio) in the declining rates of marriages and subsequent rise in nonmarital births (for review, see Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995b). Although studies do find that a variety of economic and demographic factors are critical for understanding this shift, Raley (1996) noted these factors account for only about 20% of the differences in Black-White marriage rates. To explain the source of remaining differ