Race politics: Jews, blacks, and the Presidency

For once, I read a magazine that wasn’t a few months old. More specifically, I read last week’s New York Times Magazine, which featured a fascinating story about the Aleppo Codex, as well as an interview with Jonathan Haidt. One question from interviewer Andrew Goldman is the subject of tonight’s post:

I have relatives who are Southern conservative Republicans, who say that the fact that almost the entire black population voted for Barack Obama is as inherently racist as the idea that all whites would vote for a white candidate. Do they have a point?

Haidt’s reply:

Had a Jew run at any point in the 20th century, just about every Jew would have voted for him, so I can’t criticize blacks for voting for a black president. There’s an enormous difference between voting for a candidate because you hate another ethnic group and voting for a candidate because he’s a member of your ethnic group.

There’s a lot to unpack in this response, and I’m not going to get into most of it, but I do want to respond to two of Haidt’s claims in turn.

First, Haidt’s use of the word ‘had’ to imply that no Jews actually did run for President in the 20th century is only technically correct.

When Al Gore made Joe Lieberman his running mate in 2000 – basically the 20th century – his share of the Jewish vote (79%)* came in between Clinton I (80%) and Clinton II (78%). Granted, Lieberman was not the actual candidate, but if ‘just about every Jew’ would have voted for a Jewish Presidential candidate, one has to imagine that ‘just about just about every Jew’ would have voted for Gore-Lieberman, and that seems not to have been the case.

*It is worth noting that these numbers seem to be based on exit polls; presumably elderly Floridian Jews would have reported their vote accurately, unaware that they had actually just accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan.

And then there’s Barry Goldwater, an Episcopalian with a Jewish background (father) he went to no lengths to hide. From his New York Times obit:

Once, when he was challenged in the Senate on his opposition to a civil rights bill, he said quietly: “I know something about discrimination. I am Jewish.”

Goldwater carried 38.5% of the popular vote – but just 10% of the Jewish vote.

And then there’s Haidt’s second clause, explaining how voting for someone because of his race is different from voting against someone because of his race. I agree with his larger point, but think it’s worth pointing out that the premise of the question (and by extension, the response) bears only a tenuous relationship with reality.

Yes, blacks voted for Obama in numbers that would make Mubarak green with envy (OK, it was less than 99.8%, so maybe not), but his support was hardly unprecedented. Here’s the chart breaking down the black vote for President from 1936 through 2004:

As you can see, blacks have voted overwhelmingly Democratic since 1964 (depending, I suppose, on your definition of ‘overwhelmingly’), which pitted Lyndon Johnson against (common thread) Barry Goldwater:

But then President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 (outlawing segregation in public places) and his eventual Republican opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater, opposed it. Johnson got 94 percent of the black vote that year, still a record for any presidential election.

That paragraph – also from Factcheck.org – was written in mid-2008, when 94 was still a record percentage of the black vote. Given the opportunity to vote for a President who shared their skin color in 2008, blacks voted overwhelmingly in favor of Obama to the tune of… 95%. In other words, a number largely in line with historical voting preferences, and a difference certainly well within any conceivable margin of error.

That said, voting isn’t all about for whom you vote: it’s also about turnout. And it certainly is worth noting that turnout among African-Americans spiked from 60% in 2004 all the way to 65% in 2008.

But it’s also worth noting that both of those numbers are well above the national turnout in their respective years (55.3 in 2004 and 56.8 in 2008), so ‘white America’: feel free to complain, but shame on you.

And go vote.

But not really, because even though you don’t like Obama, do you really want to vote for a Mormon?


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