Among recent black college graduates, women now earn more than men, according to census figures, and some sociologists say that may be an economic disincentive to marriage.
In fact, black college-educated women have made such financial strides since 1980 that many now earn as much or more than white women with similar education and similar work experience.
The big wage gains for black professional women came in the 1980s as the salaries of white professional women rose slightly and those of black men eroded.
The wage figures, which account for inflation, are analyses of census data conducted for the New York Times by the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-supported research organization in Washington, and by Queens College of the City University of New York.
Among recent college graduates with from one to five years on the job, black women earned an average wage of $11.41 an hour in 1991 while white women earned $11.38 an hour and black men were paid $11.26, according to an analysis by Lawrence Mishel and Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute. White males earned $12.85 an hour.
The Queens College analysis found that the median income for college graduates 25 and younger was about $18,000 for white men, $17,000 for black women, $16,800 for white women and $16,400 for black men.
Proposed explanations for the disparity included racism, affirmative action programs -- employing a woman who is black meets two minority hiring goals -- and the fact that the pool of recent college graduates from which companies can recruit black employees includes more women than men.
While the gains by black women confirm the value of a college degree and the availability of jobs, some experts say they could discourage marriage within the black middle class because women often hesitate to marry men who earn less than the the women earn.
Compounding the problem for better-educated black women is that they significantly outnumber better-educated black men, and the gap in education and income is growing, said William zTC Julius Wilson, the University of Chicago professor of sociology who produces the "black marriageable male index," a gauge of the deficit of employed black men available to marry black women.
"Better-educated black women face a real dilemma," Mr. Wilson said. "Do they remain single or do they marry down? . . . One outcome could be not intraracial marriages, but more interracial marriages."
The wage gap between college-educated black women and men was slight and may close altogether as black men advance professionally. But while income differentials among blacks have traditionally been narrower than among whites, the latest shift defies the wage advantage generally enjoyed by men -- a shift that has persisted historically.