The Buzz

Black Mormons and Identity Politics at the Times

The New York Times wants to understand how people in the flyover states are feeling about the upcoming presidential contest. So they sent reporter Susan Saulny to Utah investigate a key battleground constituency: African-American Mormons. The result was a splashy photo-laden piece for its National section titled "For Black Mormons, a Political Choice Like No Other."

The headline is an attention getter. But is this story really worthy of numerous column inches in what many consider the newspaper of record? As Saulny admits, African-Americans "represent only a tiny fraction of the six million Mormons in the United States."

If African-American Mormons are so rare, then why not focus on a group more likely to impact the November result? Mormons who support the decidedly anti-Romney Ron Paul probably far exceed the number who happen to be black. Haven't libertarian Mormons also been presented with a "choice like no other"?

Roughly one-third of the nation's six million Mormons live in Utah, a state that is usually one of the most solid red for Republicans. While Saulny did talk with African-American Mormons living outside Salt Lake City—including the "hundreds" who live in such blue places as Washington, Chicago and New York—this small number isn't likely to have much impact on election results.

The premise of this piece seems to be that identity with race and religion are likely to be the strongest factors in voting decisions, particularly among minority groups. In some cases, this may be true. But overemphasizing this factor demeans voters who stray from the ideologies typically associated with a given minority group. One can imagine some Times readers gawking at the this story's subjects like they are political circus freaks.

Another version of this piece might have been an interesting sidebar for the Times' Sunday magazine, but as the lead story of the National section this howler reinforces the old stereotype of racial and religious minorities as political pawns—and implies that elections should turn on complex and highly-charged questions of race and religion.