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Jewish Attitudes Toward Intermarriage With Blacks:

Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates has two interesting posts discussing data on Jewish attitudes towards intermarriage with blacks (see here and here). He points to General Social Survey data indicating that 38% of Jews would "oppose" or "strongly oppose" a close relative marrying a black person. Coates worries that this data is an indication worsening relations between the two groups.

Opposition to interracial marriage is often an indicator of racism. In this case, however, I think it mostly reflects the more general opposition of many Jews to any intermarriage with gentiles. The 38% of Jews who say they would oppose a close relative's decision to marry a black is similar to the 39% who, in a 2000 American Jewish Committee survey (question 42), said they agree with the statement that "it would pain me if my child married a gentile." It is true, of course, that there are black Jews, including a large Ethiopian Jewish population in Israel. In the US, however, the black percentage of the Jewish population is negligible. So opposition to intermarriage with blacks may simply be based on a shorthand assumption by Jewish survey respondents that virtually all blacks are gentiles. Further evidence supporting this proposition is the fact that the same GSS survey shows that 30% of Jews "oppose" or "strongly oppose" intermarriage with Hispanics, and 29% with Asians. Relations between Jews and Asian-Americans are quite good.

Coates compares the 22% of Jews who say they would favor or strongly favor a relative's intermarriage with blacks to the 72% who similar favor such intermarriage with generic "whites." However, Jewish survey respondents most likely view the category of "white" as including Jews, while seeing the category of "black" as one that is almost exclusively gentile. They could not very well oppose marriage with "whites" without also opposing marriage with Jews (the overwhelming majority of whom - in the US - are themselves "white," as most Americans use the term).

Part of the problem here is that Jews are both an ethnic group and a religious group; these two facets of Jewish identity are distinct, but often overlapping. Those Jews who oppose intermarriage tend to be among the most religious, and therefore the most committed to marrying someone of the same faith. For example, an analysis of the 2000 AJC survey showed that 64% of Orthodox Jews said they "strongly disapprove" of intermarriage with gentiles, compared with much smaller percentages of Reform and Conservative Jews. Polls that measure Jewish attitudes towards interracial marriage are to a large extent actually measuring attitudes toward interfaith marriage.

To avoid misunderstanding, I should note that I have little doubt that some Jews oppose intermarriage with blacks out of racism. But the true number is likely to be far smaller than 38%. I suppose I should also mention that I am an ethnic Jew engaged to a gentile, and that I have at various times in the past dated non-Jews who are also non-white. However, my case is just one of many examples of the point I made in the post. Although I am ethnically Jewish, I am not religious, and my engagement will not actually lead to an interfaith marriage because our attitudes towards religion are actually very similar despite the ethnic difference. Intergroup marriages that are also interfaith marriages tend to be more difficult and attract greater opposition.

NOTE: I use the word "black" here in preference to "African-American" because that is the term used in the GSS poll cited by Coates. I do not intend by this to take a position on the longstanding debate over which is the more appropriate term to use.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. General White Attitudes Towards Intermarriage with Blacks:
  2. More on Black-Jewish Marriage:
  3. Jewish Attitudes Toward Intermarriage With Blacks:
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More on Black-Jewish Marriage:

To follow up a bit on Ilya's post below, I think the survey question is too poorly worded to be used as evidence for or against racism among Jews: "Would you be in favor of a close relative marrying a black?"

As Ilya points out, the vast majority of blacks are gentiles, so some fraction of Jews, especially more observant Jews, are going to answer "no" because they oppose intermarriage. But there is a more subtle problem. I've heard several Jews, especially among the older generation, say something along the lines of, "I have nothing against people of any race. However, if my child asked me if I should marry someone black, I'd advise against it (even assuming the black person was Jewish or willing to convert). It's hard enough to be a Jew in this world [this, note, from people who often escaped pogroms, or Naziism, or official Soviet anti-Semitism]. Interracial couples face additional prejudice, and their children will face the prejudices of being black and Jewish. And it's hard enough for two people to get along in this world, especially if they have different cultural backgrounds, without facing the additional pressures an interracial marriage would bring. But if my child ignored my advice and decided to marry someone black, I'd accept him/her and welcome him/her to the family, and treat him/her exactly like anyone else." (And, I should add, I know of individuals who have followed this exact script--including having a wonderful relationship with their black child-in-law--in practice.)

Such people would have to answer "no" to the survey question, but it really doesn't speak to the issue of racism, or black/Jewish relations more generally.

UPDATE: A commenter points out that allowing societal racism to affect one's preferences for whom one's children marries helps sustain societal racism. That's true, and may make the attitude I described above morally objectionable. But it's also true that worrying about how others' attitudes will affect your children and grandchildren--assuming it's not a pretext for your own prejudices--does not mean that you share those others' attitudes, even if it hardly makes you an anti-racism crusader.

So I'll slightly modify what I said before. The wording of the question doesn't allow us to separate those who are motivated by religious opposition to interfaith marriage from those who are motivated by racial concerns, and of the latter group, those who are motivated by personal racism from those who are motivated by the effects of societal racism. The fact that some people might be willing to allow societal racism to effect their judgments does speak to the issue of racism and black-Jewish relations, but more obliquely than those who are motivated by racism.

Of course, if we are talking about the relative prejudices of Jews, as the original post by Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, the relative comparison would be "to compare the Jewish numbers ... with other whites." The survey data I've seen shows that 77% of whites state that they approve of interracial marriage in general, way up from the 1950s, when the statistics was 4% (!). I haven't seen such data broken down for Jews. I do remember hearing a few years back NPR reporting on a poll that concluded that 40+% of whites would not want a close relative to marry an Asian or a Hispanic (which I thought were surprisingly high figures), and somewhat higher numbers opposed a close relative marrying an African American.

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General White Attitudes Towards Intermarriage with Blacks:

Continuing with the discussion of Jewish attitudes towards intermarriage with blacks, co-blogger David Bernstein and Ta-Nehisi Coates (in one of the posts that started this exchange) suggest it would be useful to compare Jewish attitudes with those of other whites. We do in fact have data on the percentage of whites who would oppose a "close relative's" decision to marry a black. In this 2001 poll, 22% of whites said that they would be opposed. A more recent 2007 survey of New York opinion found that 23% of New York whites take that view.

These figures are much lower than the 38% of Jews who say they would oppose a close relative's decision to marry a black. Jews are, of course, included in the overall white numbers, but they are a negligible percentage of the total, since only about 2% of the nation's population is Jewish (though that percentage is much higher in New York state). However, comparing the 38% figure to the 22% tells us very little about relative racism among Jews as compared to other whites, or about the state of black-Jewish relations. As I explained in my earlier post, much Jewish opposition to intermarriage with blacks is probably a reflection of more general opposition any intermarriage with gentiles - opposition that is religious rather than racial in nature. By contrast, most gentile whites are Christian, as are most American blacks. So a gentile black-white intermarriage would not necessarily be an interfaith marriage. The two partners might belong to different Christian denominations. But intermarriage between different branches of Christianity is now extremely common and most American Christians no longer consider it a major compromise of religious principle. Intermarriage between Jews and Christians is more controversial, especially at a time when many American Jews worry that intermarriage might lead to the eventual disappearance of their community.

Interestingly, the GSS data linked by Coates show that 19% of blacks would oppose a close relative's decision to marry a Jew, compared to only 9% who would oppose a relative's decision to marry a generic "white." Much of the difference between the two figures may also be due to concerns about interfaith marriage rather than to anti-Semitism in the black community.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. General White Attitudes Towards Intermarriage with Blacks:
  2. More on Black-Jewish Marriage:
  3. Jewish Attitudes Toward Intermarriage With Blacks:
184 Comments