Behind the Numbers: Asian Americans and Social Institutions

As part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Census provides a fact sheet of the latest numbers on this particular collection of ethnic groups that are bundled under this racial term. Ever wonder why the Census Bureau knows about racial characteristics of the US? Believe it or not, it’s in our Constitution!

Article I. Section 2 reads:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

As you can see, in order to figure out how many seats a given state should have in the House of Representatives, we had to count households. But counting people and households is a complicated and in some ways a political statement. As you can see, Native Americans weren’t counted and non-free persons were not counted as fully a person. For the most part these were African American slaves. After the Civil War and Emancipation, the 13th Amendment nullified the Three-Fifths Compromise and all citizens were by law to be counted as persons. So while we have a more equal system of counting in place, we still continue to count people by their racial and ethnic backgrounds to this day. We do this because American society continues to have fairly unequal outcomes in proportion to the racial groups identified in the Census. [Read more…]

Wolves in Gaudy Sheepskin Clothing

Fleecing the faithful,” it’s called. The sort of story featured on the front cover of Saturday’s New York Times tends to rankle everyone’s feathers, from the utterly agnostic to the truly devout. I might also add that such stories tend to surprise no one. There’s news here, to be sure, about grandchildren calling their grandparents out on their moral and fiscal crimes. But it’s hardly new news.

While it may raise eyebrows that Americans continue to bankroll televangelists—$20, $50, or $100 at a time—exactly why they continue to do so when such ministries are so self-evidently opulent and excessive remains something of a mystery to the rational mind. I suppose some would simply reply, “If you can believe in something as outlandish as basic Christian doctrine, then you can be convinced to do things as gullible as that, and worse.” Hmmm…perhaps. Perhaps not. Lots of us, religious or not, are capable—under the right conditions of charismatic authority and legitimation—of heinous evil. Has always been true.

Back to the Trinity Broadcasting Network. What has long perplexed me about TBN is their look. I don’t quite understand the appeal of their truly faux architecture, gaudy sets, and personal attire. Maybe it’s the simple Midwesterner in me, but is there really an audience in America who thinks that look is attractive? I recently drove past a TBN facility of some sort halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, and it stood out—an accomplishment in that area, let me tell you—for its outlandishness. To whom does this appeal? To North Texas Pentecostals over the age of 60? (I don’t know.) No, I haven’t been everywhere (unlike the Johnny Cash song), but the only places that seem comparably cheesy are old sections of Beverly Hills, or perhaps some parts of South Florida.

I presume that most of TBN’s checks aren’t coming from those quarters, but who knows—perhaps the health-and-wealth gospel is underwritten by the healthy and the wealthy, not the poorer and disabled, as many have long presumed. It’s an empirical question, of course, but one that’s only answerable by open access to accounting. And we know that’s unlikely. And yet the checks keep rolling in:

“Clearly, many viewers have heartfelt responses. In 2010, TBN received $93 million in tax-exempt donations, according to its tax report. The company also had $64 million in additional income from sales of airtime and $17 million in investment income that year. It spent $194 million operating its far-flung network and investing in new programs. The company was in the red for the year, but could draw on its cushion of $325 million in cash and investments.”

It may sound like a lot, but it’s comparatively not. Think about it: if 1 out of every 337 Americans gave TBN $100 bucks this year, $93 million is exactly what they’d take in. For comparison, say a 6000-member suburban congregation witnessed, per capita, about $1500 in the offering plate in a year; there’s $9 million–and that’s just one congregation.

I nevertheless take some heart in the mass antagonism toward the small minority of Christian ministers who live opulent lives, whether honestly gained or ill-gotten. Because there remains a seed in all of us that just knows that the lives of the shepherds are to be more Christ-like than that. (Can you imagine St. Francis of Assisi staying here, in a hotel and city named after him?)

People expect better of shepherds, as they ought. Give them neither poverty nor wealth, I pray. And the same for me. (All of this raises disturbing questions about my own feeble level of generosity and excessive self-concern.)

Finally, let’s remember to retain some perspective here. After all the Christian hand-wringing, sheepish looks, and obligatory “we’re not all like that” apologies—blah, blah, blah—the fact remains that there is an extraordinary amount of legal-but-immoral wealth out there already, and little of it has been gotten by way of preaching in front of cameras or building cheesy theme parks. Plenty of modern wealth has been built upon fleecing people by more socially-acceptable means, including convincing people of things they “need” but cannot afford, or by—gasp—creating silly, time-wasting games and selling millions of them. Indeed, apparently my fair city’s tech future relies on such foolish sources of income. There are many ways to fleece, whether by taxation, donation, or clever marketing.

But as noted above, we expect better from (so-called) believers. I hope we always do.

Hard Work + Structural Advantages: 20+ Years of Korean Immigrant Businesses

Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month everyone! May is a tough month to reflect on my roots and the stories of other Asian Americans, partly because there are cool holidays like Cinco De Mayo (which is no small deal in Texas), and partly because May is when all the transitions at school happen. But the wonders of the internet keep getting better as I can now subscribe to feeds that show up in my email, or as friends on Facebook posts important reminders.

In this post I want to start my month-long blog series on Asian American social issues by returning to the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 (yeah it’s a rough story to start a month of celebration, but hey this is sociology). Last time I looked at the Riots from the perspective of the motivations behind some of those who normally don’t behave is ways that exemplify social disorder. Most of those in the area stayed indoors but nevertheless there was a great deal of damage and tragic loss of life. This time I’d like to share some of the things sociologists have talked about regarding Korean Americans, particularly their businesses.  [Read more…]

Worship and Place: Church Meeting in a Bar

Earlier this week I attended what a church calls their “Theology on Tap” series. In it, they host a speaker at a local tavern, invited friends and family, and basically spent 2 hours drinking, eating, and talking Christianity. It was quite enjoyable at many levels, but the thing I’ve thought most about was the effect of place on Christian gatherings.

You see, this was an Episcopal church, and while I have not been to their Sunday services, I’ve been to enough Episcopal services to appreciate how solemn and generally not-rowdy they are. In contrast, the other night was a bit rowdy and lots of casual fun.

Why the difference? I assume mainly the location (though the beer might have helped). Taking over the back room of a tavern prompts a very different social atmosphere than if the same meeting had been held in the parish hall.

I know that there are people who put a lot of thought into the structure of church spaces, and this makes me glad that they do. It seems that getting the space right is very important and worth spending some money on.

Even in my teaching I have seen the effects of space. In the past 8 years or so I’ve had two classes fall flat, and both met in old fashioned rooms on campus–seating all on one level and rectangles with the longest dimension going from front-to-back (which, I believe, is the layout of most churches). In fact, the second time it happened, I realized what was going on, and I switched classrooms after three weeks to one with arena-style seating, and within minutes the whole tone of the class changed.

So, perhaps all some churches need is a change in space and, perhaps, beer on tap.

“The 21st Century Will be a Century of Ethics or It Will Not Be”

In a recent post on Black, White and Gray, Wheaton sociology professor Amy Reynolds asked “What Makes a Development Expert?” Pondering who should be the next president of the World Bank, and what approach he or she should take to development, Reynolds argued that the end of development is the human person–or human development. She further argued that the next president of the World Bank should not only be a “technical” expert, but someone who understands how culture influences development.

My students’ final assignment for the semester was to read Reynolds’s post and the links about the different candidates, and then use our assigned class readings from Amartya Sen, William Easterly, and Carruthers and Babb to vote for the new World Bank President. In my class, Nigeria’s Ngozi won 20 votes, Kim won 8, and Ocampo won 3. My students cited Ngozi’s technical expertise in economics and her experience as finance minster as her most important qualifications. Those who voted for Kim liked that he had proven results that a piecemeal approach to development–tackling one main issue (HIV/AIDS) through community-based centers–could work.

We know now that the American candidate, Jim Yong Kim, the former President of Dartmouth College,  co-founder of Partners In Health, and former director of World Health Organization’s Department of HIV/AIDS, was elected President of the World Bank. The Economist mused whether Kim, whose approach to development has been grassroots, can bring effective change to an agency most known for its big-push approach to development.

I have  a great interest in varying approaches to economic development. After graduating from Yale in 1995, I worked for three years at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San Jose, Costa Rica, founded by Nobel Peace laureate and two-time President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias. During my time there, I traveled throughout Central America and visited communities of former soldiers and guerillas in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. I went to graduate school at Princeton to study international development from a sociological perspective.  Although my interests took a different route, I still follow debates in economic development. The more I read, the more I realize that development does not just mean expanding markets,  generating greater macro-economic growth, or increasing personal incomes, but rather development requires both economic growth and a focus on promoting human dignity.

But do such discussions about human dignity occur in the large development organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? Yes, they do. In 2007, I was invited to a seminar on Faith and Economics by Princeton economic historian  Professor Harold James at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. When James introduced the public session of the Study Group on Faith and Economics, he remarked how the modern world seems to be marked by both the globalization of markets and the resurgence of religious activity in many parts of the world. Are these two trends connected? How does religion influence economic development? As the President of the European University Institute, Yves Meny, said what does it mean to talk about faith and economics when for many, economics is the religion of the times?

Each of the four leading figures present at this conference–Michel Camdessus, Anwar Ibrahim, Emma Rothschild, and Amartya Sen,  agreed on the basic point that economic growth in and of itself must be connected to promoting human dignity and they each made unique contributions to how this can be accomplished. For example, as the eminent economic historian from Harvard Emma Rothschild pointed out, the market does not create equity, yet classical authors like Hume and Montesquieu were concerned about the perverse effects that gross inequality could have on a democracy.

Although much contemporary writings on economics have separated the ethical and the technical, the study group participants pointed out how religious ideas and religious people contribute to generating an ethic to guide the distribution of wealth and the proper use of the fruits of wealth. For example, the Nobel Economics laureate Amartya Sen remarked how most religions contain a missionary element that leads humans to encounter other humans and consider them in an ethical light. Although neither Professor Sen nor Professor Rothschild profess or practice a particular religion, they recognized how religious faith as a transcendental approach to life—or what Professor Rothschild called “an imaginative transposition”—leads one to put himself in the position of other human beings and consider how we should treat them.

The other two conference participants, Michel Camdessus, the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, are both religious believers. They became friends while working with the IMF and began to share their faith, finding many commonalities despite coming from different traditions (Catholicism and Islam). When he was Managing Director of the IMF, Mr. Camdessus (who is from France) worked hard to bring discussions of values and ethics to his work. He also met regularly with religious leaders and lay leaders of different religious faiths. In both the private and public sessions of the study group meeting, Mr. Camdessus recounted conversations he had with Pope John Paul II that led him to ponder a question the Pope put to him. After the fall of communism and the spread of market economies across the globe, the Pope asked him, “Upon what values are you going to build this new global society?”

During the rest of his time at the IMF, Mr. Camdessus reflected on this very question and he also took advantage of his many opportunities to meet with political and religious leaders to ask them the same question. The answers he came up with represent the beginning of a platform that people of various religious faiths or no particular faith could agree to. During the study group meeting, Mr. Camdessus argued that we need a global economic system that promotes human dignity. He outlined three values that he thinks world leaders and world citizens can agree to: 1) a sense of global responsibility to all countries; 2) solidarity to alleviate poverty; 3) a new sense of global citizenship to back a new global governance.

Mr. Ibrahim recounted how he has encountered many stereotypes against religious believers, in particular Muslims, in his work in international economics and development. For too many people, secularism has come to mean not just separation of church and state but also being anti-religious. He argued that faith can help bring back an ethical approach to economics. Rather than thinking of man as homos economicus, we should think of man as a universalist humanist. As Mr. Ibrahim pointed out, arguing that the theory and practice of economic development should include faith and religion does not mean that non-believers now become the excluded.

All the participants agreed that people can reach an agreement on values and ethics even if they start from different religious faiths or no faith at all. Professor Sen made a passionate call for greater dialogue about economics and ethics. Michel Camdessus’s closing words of advice or perhaps caution were: “The 21st century will be a century of ethics or it will not be.” In other words, the 21st century has shown us that technical progress in economic production, biology or science can enrich or endanger human life, making it crucial to ponder the values upon which we use our technical and economic powers.