Statistics on Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage


Why didn’t I take statistics in graduate school? Who knew that instead of teaching history I’d be working for a non-profit where statistics are vitally important and constantly contested. Take the recent flurry of posts from major bloggers about Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage.

The bloggers’ exchange kicked off with a light post by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates suggesting a dating service for matching up African-Americans and Jews. A social scientist who seems to have created his blog for the express purpose of answering the questions that come up in this discussion (no biographical page!) posted to relate relevant data about attitudes of various groups toward interracial marriage according to the General Social Survey. (Here’s the first of the many times reading this that I kicked myself. I have no idea how to evaluate the GSS data, at all.)

Coates responded with a post about how negative Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage with Afrcian-Americans might indicate the end of the Black-Jewish alliance. Then, Ilya Somin, a blogger at the conservative Volokh Conspiracy, weighed in with a post on the role that negative Jewish attitudes toward interfaith marriage might play in attitudes to relatives marrying African-Americans. Somin cracked me up with this:

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.

Oh yeah, right. People are always telling me that they aren’t really in an interfaith marriage because they aren’t religious, but I generally assume that’s because I’ve buttonholed them in the supermarket and am trying to get them to write for our website. I think the problem is the word “interfaith” which makes it sound like every day of your marriage you sit down in a circle, sing “Kumbaya” and discuss comparative religion. A non-religious ethnic Jew marrying a non-religious gentile still has to make identity decisions when he or she has children. For the Jewish community’s purposes, that’s an interfaith marriage, even if it looks like an inter-no-faith marriage.

Somin may be right that this identity issue is the main one motivating 38 per cent of Jews surveyed in the GSS to say they oppose their relatives marrying African-Americans. Coates acknowledges this too in his post with some clarification on Black-Jewish statistics. David Bernstein, also of Volokh Conspiracy, wrote to argue that perhaps Jews oppose interracial marriage because they fear the additional persecution of racism. (I know at least two Jewish jokes with that as their theme.) I have to agree with Bernstein’s commenter that “allowing societal racism to affect one’s preferences for whom one’s children marries helps sustain societal racism.” Somin writes further that the larger percentage of African-Americans (19 per cent) who would oppose their children marrying Jews compared to those who oppose their children marrying generic whites (9 per cent) may be from this same fear of wider social prejudice.

Do you see why I want to learn everything I can about statistics? I went to try to look up the question of how many Jews in interfaith marriages are married to African-Americans on the North-American Jewish Databank, but I couldn’t figure out how to ask the question to get the data. I did learn that about 2 per cent of North American Jews are African-American, though everyone in this discussion cited that statistic. (How do you figure those Jews were included in these studies?) I also learned that estimating the number of Jews is really difficult. In Ira Sheskin’s study, Measuring and Assessing the American Jewish Population, I learned that some households with uniquely Jewish names did not identify as Jewish when the National Jewish Population Survey called them.

I also learned something else that should have been obvious from reading the Pew Forum Survey. The Jewish community in the United States is aging and shrinking. I don’t know whether that affects the percentage of people expressing fear of interracial or interfaith marriage in surveys. I don’t really know whether older Jews are more conservative than younger Jews. There might be a study about that.

4 thoughts on “Statistics on Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage”

  • I concur with 2mixednlackjewgirl. My soon to be inlaws seem to be okay with our engagement, but u didn’t meet the bulk of my fiance’s family until after I made it clear I would be converting. No effort, but a few, was made to get to know me and find out my views in Judaism. Perhaps I would have always been okay raising the children Jewish, but how would you know when you didn’t ask? I also don’t feel that any other non-Jew my fiance would have brought home would have been scrutinized if they were white. It is easy to pass off anything when you look like the person you are with, when you are Black, the natural assumption is that the person cannot possibly be Jewish.

    I certainly would like to read more articles by Black Jews and those considering conversion. I comment whenever I can and perhaps I will try to contribute more in hopes of dispelling a lot of views some Jews (and I’d say mostly by the older generation) have against Blacks.

  • I think “the end of the Black-Jewish alliance” is hype. I don’t know if that’s what Mimi means about Farrakhan, but I remember back in the 1980s that whenever he opened his mouth people began moaning about what it meant for Black Jewish relations. It’s just a way to rile people up.

    On the other hand, political and cultural alliances are not the same as marriage and don’t reflect people’s experiences of discrimination in their own families. Working here I’ve had the opportunity to hear a lot of anecdotes about racial discrimination inside the Jewish community. It’s all the same bad comments that children of interfaith marriage often hear from other Jews, multiplied by the factor of racism. I’d really like to have more articles on the IFF site from Jews of color (and their parents, also) discussing this.

  • I am black and Jewish, and some of what MiMi says is quite frightening. First and foremost, most black people don’t listen to, care about, or base their marital decisions based on Louis Farakahn. That conjecture is ludicrous. Secondly, where are these studies stating that blacks don’t support Israel? Furthermore, how do you define “supporting Israel?” Many black people support the right for the state of Israel to exist, yet feel that their treatment of Palestinians needs to be examined. Ironically, a lot of Jews feel the same way.

    What we have found in studies about black American Jews is that American Jews are far more consumed with negative thoughts about blacks than vice versa. Katya Azoulay explores this in Black, Jewish, and Interracial. Rebecca Walker discusses this phenomenon in Black, White, and Jewish, and I know of several up and coming Jew of color researchers exploring the issues in depth. … 0822319713

    What worries me the most about your analysis is that you completely ignore racism in your analysis, Mimi. Many adult Black Jews are forced to intermarry because they cannot find Jewish mates. Most Jewish parents don’t want a black in law because of the larger racial stratification. In my work with interracial couples and Jews of color, I encounter more Jews of African descent that had to relationship with their Ashkenazi families because they were black. I barely had a relationship with my Jewish family for that reason.

  • Wow, what a great article. It makes me wonder so many things, as I suppose a good article ought to do. For instance, if the African-American resistance to a Jewish intermarriage really is because of a fear of widening social prejudice, do you see that same resistance to intermarriage with other, non-white ethnic groups? And if there is an end to the “Black-Jewish alliance,” how much of it is due to the poisonous rhetoric of a Farrakhan? How much to dislike for Israel? Which of course only examines one side of the equation — as you imply, shrinking numbers of self-identifed Jews in this country makes any intermarriage a touchy subject, but all the more so when the ethnic identity of the potential partner is perceived as stronger or more stable than one’s own. Perhaps there is a sense that African-American culture and historical identity is so vigorous, so flourishing, and so all-embracing that Jewish identity would simply be subsumed into a postscript. Or maybe there are other, darker reasons at play, like the old Jewish fear in this country of “not being quite white enough”; does intermarriage with an African-American confirm all those old suspicions and misgivings?

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