On Minorities Relationships to Political Power

via David B. at Volokh Conspiracy

Jews, Blacks, and Political Power:

Ilya’s post below on Spitzer reminds me that being of Jewish background myself (no, really!), I have found it very interesting that Obama has been receiving such overwhelming support from African Americans in this election. It’s one thing to support Jesse Jackson or even Al Sharpton for symbolic reasons, but Obama actually has a good chance of becoming president.

Among Jews of past generations, and to a lesser extent even today, the last thing in the world many would want is a Jewish president. While such an achievement would undoubtedly be a matter of pride, there would also be grave concern that people would “blame the Jews” if things went badly. Moreover, there would be concern that if a Jewish president of the U.S. acted friendly toward Israel, he’d be accused of acting based on his Jewish background, while a Gentile president could be as pro-Israel as his ideology allows.

By contrast, African Americans don’t seem particularly concerned about a potential racist backlash if Obama becomes president.

Why the difference? I think it has its roots in the different historical experiences of the two groups. Jews, being a minority people in exile, often were only able to protect themselves by establishing relationships with those in power. When the people turned against those in power, they turned against their Jewish advisors and allies as well, and by extension against the Jews. And when Jews were emancipated and became involved in political movements, ranging from liberalism to Communism, their ideological adversaries rarely hesitated to stir up opposition by focusing on Jewish leaders of the movement, resulting, for example, in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews by the White Russians during the Russian revolutionary upheaval. Even today in the U.S., anti-Jewish prejudice manifests itself in complaints about disproportionate Jewish political power, as witnessed by the oft-heard claim that Jewish neoconservatives manipulated the Bush Administration into war with Iraq.

By contrast, African Americans have suffered in large part because of their lack of political power. With 12% or so of the population and deep historic roots in American life, African Americans are less worried about being seen as outside interlopers seizing power from “real Americans”, and more worried about the very real consequences they have suffered from being excluded from political power.

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