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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:
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.
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