Economic Choices, the Media, and Racism

At the end of 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled, “The Problem with Giving Tuesday,” where I suggested that we have a responsibility and Christian mandate to more seriously reflect on our economic purchases and decisions.  I also noted that I was changing my consumption behavior when it came to chocolate – a decision that continues to prove challenging.This is a follow-up blog.

As we study about systems (like the chocolate trade), we learn the problems are bigger than we individually can solve.  It is important to be involved in political and social action, to demand greater regulations from both the state and from businesses themselves. Sin is individual and social; we are accountable for the sins of systems in which we participate and support in some way.

But that doesn’t negate the need for individual changes.  In calling us to hold ourselves accountable for what we buy, I’m not suggesting that our individual economic purchases are the most important way to fight injustice and exploitation in the economic system. But it acknowledges the link between the personal and the structural.  As a wise colleague noted to me recently, this means we often may feel that any decision we make will involve some level of sin, because of the society we are embedded within.

As I continue my commitment to not buying chocolate where the source is unknown, my second commitment is to change the media I consume. A number of racist and sexist stereotypes are promoted by much of the media, and the persisting racism and sexism in our society is shaped in part by media. First, I want to encourage and support more media with intentionally different messages about race and gender.  Related, I want to change the messages that I willingly consume, and that impact my own perceptions and stereotypes (of myself and others).

The Structural Problem

As many have written about more eloquently than I could, this past week was a bad week for the United States (and Florida in particular).  Yet another African-American murdered youth, Jordan Davis, died without justice from our legal system.  Michael Dunn, the white man who killed Jordan Davis, was considered not guilty for the murder.

While I would agree that Michael Dunn performed a heinous act, what is more disturbing is that our society accepted that act. Sociologists talk a lot about the issues of structural racism that persist in our society today, and that even as we may want to point to individuals who do “racist things,” the actions of those individuals are shaped by their culture, and allowed by the legal system that they live within. Michelle Alexander, a lawyer, scholar, and activist, recently wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). It provides great examples and analysis of the ways our criminal justice system contributes to a racial caste system in the United States (and can also help illustrate what it means to live in a society that promotes structural racism).

Culture and structure are often linked together, and the negative and racist stereotypes and attitudes that continue to exist in our society are closely linked to these structural realities.  Given that we continue to live in a racially segregated society, for many, media plays a crucial role in perpetuating racist stereotypes. Artist Jonathan Edwards has beautifully (and provocatively) depicted the “white vision” glasses that many from the majority racial group (and some who are not part of the majority) have towards African-American teenage men.

As Christians, this should be totally unacceptable to us.  For those who grew up in predominantly white contexts, we should be asking how we challenge these stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated and accepted, even if they are “rejected” explicitly in theory or discourse. In an earlier post this summer, I provided a quotation from Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan priest who wrote The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2010). I want to repeat here the same quotation, because I think this characterization of African politics is not that different from what recent acquittals for Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman communicate today about how the United States values the lives of African-Americans:

 That these [African lives] are not unique, precious sacred lives; these are Africans, mere bodies to be used, mere masses to be exploited. That this theological claim has come to be widely assumed is obvious from the casualness with which the wastage of African lives is accepted. For a new future to take shape in Africa, the wanton sacrificing of African lives would have to be confronted-no, interrupted-by a different story and its accompanying practices in which the sacredness, the preciousness, the unviability, and the dignity of African lives are foregrounded? (17, bold-emphasis mine)

Individual Economic Behavior as One Source of Action

Given these steps backwards for racial justice in the United States, clearly social and political action is needed.  But on an individual level, I want to also ask how my economic choices matter, given my attention in the blog this year to our economic behaviors of consumption. As a result, I commit to being more proactive in the media I watch/read. While I already reject racist/sexist media as much as possible, I want to be more proactive in consuming media with the messages currently lacking in our society. While I do not think media alone changes our perceptions of others (we need to be living in more diverse communities, and learning about our history and current contextual realities), we cannot deny the role it plays in perpetuating stereotypes.

The film Miss Representation  highlights that women are underrepresented on screen and in the media, and that this is especially true for women of color. I should add that there is great lack of representation of positive images for men of color as well.  White male characters are often still the stars of mainstream films, television shows, and children’s cartoons. Unfortunately, this means that people of color are often depicted with stereotypes, given their limited representation (The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media provides some great statistics and analysis on issues surrounding gender, and interactions of race and gender, in the media)

 Right now, Doc McStuffins is an example of a show I want to support. Doc is a six-year old girl who wants to be a doctor, and serves as a doctor to her stuffed animals.  Her mom is a doctor, and she has a caring father; she is a good older sister to her younger brother.  She is friends with boys and girls.  She is an African-American girl who is the star, and not the sidekick.

I’d love to hear from readers on what you think are good films and/or television shows where racial diversity exists, and writers avoid relying on racial and gendered stereotypes.

 

 

 

The Problem with Giving Tuesday

Black Friday seems to now be the first day in a series of spending-oriented days: Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and today’s Giving Tuesday.  Apparently 2013 marks the second official Giving Tuesday.  According to the official website, the day “celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support non-profit organizations. I suspect, however, Giving Tuesday works because it is paired with days of spending and consuming; giving to others can sometimes be a way to make people feel less guilty for their own high levels of consumption.  We consume with ourselves (and our family and loved ones) in mind; we give to help others we do not know.

In the United States, it seems that getting the best deal often becomes the most important goal in our consumption. Post after post on my Facebook feed reveals friends letting others know about the money they saved in the purchase of some toy or gadget. While I’m not against saving money (I use electronic coupons to lower the cost of groceries quite regularly!), paying the lowest price should not be the highest priority when it comes to our consumption. Black Friday thrives because we’ve convinced ourselves there is moral virtue to finding the lowest price.

At the same time, I think all of us are willing to admit that there are limits to what we can and should do to save money or pay lower prices.  For those who pay people to clean their homes, I suspect paying an elementary school child to do the work (when they should be in school) wouldn’t be an option, even it was legal.  For those who hire people to care for their children, paying someone $2/hr who was undocumented and in severe financial need and willing to accept that low wage is probably also not an attractive option.

Yet somehow we think that if we buy an item in the informal marketplace, we are not responsible for how the business treats their workers. If we get a low price because the business we buy it from hired a child,  paid someone under the minimum wage, or made people work under hazardous conditions, then that’s not on us.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we ask, much like Cain.  That’s their problem, not ours.  I assume this because I see people championing their great deal much more often than people asking questions about why prices are so low.  Economic sociologists often talk about the ways we’ve become disconnected from the items we buy under modern capitalism.

But then, in Giving Tuesday, we give to organizations that help those in poverty–often workers who may have been involved in the goods we buy.  How can we fail to see the irony within this?  Since this day just started, and we in the US like our specially named days, what about a different way to help, that actually connected with all the buying this season entails.  Informed Sunday.  That’s what I would support. What if, as Christians, we connected the buying and the giving; our consumption with our concern for others we do not know. The idea that we are not our brother or sister’s keeper, that we are not responsible for the conditions under which our goods are produced — it’s a lie.  We are called to live in covenant with God and with others.  While the market may be depersonalized, when we buy items, we lend our support to the business practices of the seller.  We are connected to the workers involved.

Why don’t we reflect? Why aren’t we informed about our purchases?  I think for many, it’s simply too hard. I have students come to me, overwhelmed with trying to figure out how to live justly in a system they see as unjust.  How do they make ethical purchasing decisions? How do they choose a workplace that values human dignity above profit? But doing nothing… it’s always less than doing something.

This is why I plan to celebrate Informed Sunday. It’s a way for me to think more critically about the ways I spend money, and to demand of myself that I am informed about the conditions that I support.  As Christians who seek to pursue God’s justice in the world, I don’t think we have an option to not be informed.  We are called to be obedient and to love, regardless of the impact that has.  Being informed about my purchasing decisions isn’t solely or mainly about changing the economic structures that exist.  It’s primarily about learning to be faithful to God and God’s call to love others.It’s about owning my role in the economic structures I participate in. It’s about embracing a responsibility to be my sister’s keeper.

Second, as Christians, we are part of a larger community.  Again, as Christians in the US we often see the word you in the Bible and think about ourselves; others throughout the world may see the word you and think about the community that they are a part of.  Committed individuals who challenge the dominant logic of the systems they live in can promote real change.  In my research on Central American coffee farmers, I was struck by how disappointed many of them were in the Christians in the United States.  As they tried to sell their ethically-produced coffee, they found Starbucks was able to give them a higher price than the Christian organization they wanted to work through. One leader lamented that Christians in the US only wanted to give him aid; he wanted fair prices for a product. My new research endeavor will look at how non-profits on the ground have the potential to change some of the exploitive conditions workers are in, and challenge the logic of transnational corporations.

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In 2013, I’ve decided to try and think each month about one product I consume, and change my habits in a way that is more faithful.  And I hope to blog about them this coming year.  The first practice I’m changing is only buying organic, fair trade, or single origin chocolate and chocolate products. I love chocolate. But I have to admit it’s a luxury, and much of it is produced under some bad conditions. In 2001, there was a lot of attention in the media to the forced slavery occurring in cocoa production in West Africa. After a measure was passed by the House in 2001 requiring chocolate manufactures to verify their goods were “slave-free,” the Chocolate Manufactures Association successfully lobbied against it, and promised to regulate themselves through the Harkin-Engle Protocol. Groups such as Hershey and Nestle agreed to eliminate the worst forms of child and adult forced labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. CNN’s Freedom Project has an interactive website that provides different details about the protocol and the larger context.

A 2010 statement (one of several following up from the initial protocol) claims they (chocolate manufacturers) will reduce child labor by 70% by 2020. A report in 2010 from Anti-Slavery International, highlights the child-trafficking that still occurs in the Ivory Coast (where about 30% of the world’s cocoa is produced). The Payson Center for International Development at Tulane has lots of research available on this topic, including on-going analysis funded by the US Department of Labor. Their research also suggests that the chocolate industry’s pledge to regulate the chocolate trade has largely failed. A 2013 article in the Christian Science Monitor highlights problems in the cocoa sector, along with other agricultural and manufacturing fields. According to UNICEF, around 500,000 children labor in cocoa production.

Buying organic or fair trade or single origin chocolate ensures that retailers know the conditions under which the chocolate was produced, and insures that child-trafficking is not being used to harvest cocoa. It’s expensive, however.  And chocolate is used in all sorts of products: cookies, brownies, hot chocolate, etc.  For someone trying to balance work, family, and community commitments, it can feel like an inconvenience to go the extra mile to find chocolate; or to go without the treat my daughters want for a special event.  It’s a small inconvenience to say no to an awful scenario of accepted exploitation.  This website, hosted at UCSD, is just one example of information available that makes buying ethically produced chocolate possible.

As Christians, we should call ourselves to a higher level of accountability for our actions that legal requirements dictate. We should desire to love our neighbor, including people we do not know, better. We should resist a consumerism that says working conditions don’t matter – or that we need not be concerned with such things.   I have friends who challenge and inform me in all sorts of areas. Some buy second hand when they can to avoid buying from factories whose conditions they are uniformed about. Others buy all their gifts at Ten Thousand Villages because they know the artisans receive a fair price.  Yet others buy produce from CSAs where they know local farms produced agriculture.  Some resist buying Apple products because of worker conditions.  All have challenged me to become more informed, and to change my practices, one step at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Tuesday?  I’m all for contributing to non-profit organizations, and I think there are a number of international NGOs who are using their resources to promote real social change.  A recent chapter I co-authored with my husband, Stephen Offutt, in The New Evangelical Social Engagement (Oxford, 2013) discusses some ways that evangelical non-profits are moving towards more structural engagement, and provides some examples of ways they are challenging different economic structures.  I financially support a number of those initiatives.  But Giving Tuesday can’t just simply exist alongside Black Friday. We have to challenge the assumptions we have about our place in the economy; consuming unjustly and giving to promote justice contradict one another. Giving Tuesday needs to exist alongside the more informed and ethical buying practices of an Informed Sunday, and not alongside the glorification of the lowest prices sought on Black Friday.

 

 

 

 

Contesting the Good News

This summer, I have the opportunity to travel to Brazil with Calvin College’s Nagel Institute, for a seminar focused on understanding how Pentecostals are interacting with and shaping globalization forces.  This question of how religious actors around the world understand and conceive of economic life—and in particular, aspects of increasing economic liberalization—is a central focus of my research.

I’ve recently finished Jill DeTemple’s 2012 book, Cement, Earthworms, and Cheese Factories: Religion and Community Development in Rural Ecuador (University of Notre Dame Press).  It’s one of the most recent books to look at a question that is growing in importance to a number of development scholars: How religion and development are intertwined and interconnected.

In discussing  historical trajectory of development, she makes a convincing argument that many of the colonizing impulses behind ‘economic development’ and Christian proselytization in the West are similar.

 Progress in its broadest sense—spiritual, cultural, technological—became the optimal way to achieve salvation’s ends (28).

Spreading the Gospel–the Good News–is a term some might use to talk about the message of God’s salvation in Christ, or the message of growth and progress for the world.  For some, mantras of growth and economic development are the true message that must be shared for the world to succeed today.

I’ve written on this question of the aims of development before. DeTemple’s work focuses more on the ways that religious and development goals get intertwined in specific places and contexts, and the lack of distinct boundaries between the two. But in telling the stories of communities, she shows that many times the goals and assumptions of development workers and ‘those being developed’ are not the same. The ends of development are re imagined.

One of the foundational aspects of development for many in the industry is economic growth (which I recently addressed).  So how are religious actors engaging with this largely uncontested belief?  In my book manuscript, I focus on how religious actors discuss and frame free trade and economic globalization.  What’s fascinating to me is the way that across a number of Christian traditions, religious voices continue to raise questions about the real goals of development and growth, almost universally critiquing our emphasis on economic individualism and a lack of concern about responsibility and relationship with neighbor.  And just as fascinating to me is that even as there seems to be much agreement among religious leaders, these voices are largely muted in public economic debates.

In understanding how Pentecostals in Brazil are engaging with globalization, I look forward to seeing the ways that actors on the ground—those engaging with poverty reduction and interacting with development programs—are part of a larger religious conversation about the value of growth and development.  As I continue to engage further in dialogues on religion and development, I’d love to hear other examples you may have of how religious actors are challenging global values and structures of current globalization paradigms in their micro-level efforts.

When Growth is Bad

The Hastert Center for Economics, Government, And Public Policy  at Wheaton College hosted an event last Thursday on the morality of economic growth, co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.  The central speaker, Dr. Smith of Gordon College, argued that economic growth should be a moral imperative for Christians, especially if we are concerned about poverty.

As a person engaged in economic sociology (and a respondent at the event), I appreciated the fact this conversation was taking place. We need more dialogue on the moral character of market life. What does it mean to live ethical economic lives—as individuals, communities, and societies?

However, in a world where it seems that governments and policy-makers often just assume that growth is good, I’d like to suggest that growth in itself is not good. I recognize the great strides we have made in lowering infant mortality (and the rise in other development indicators) in the last two centuries. However, I think we should ask, “When is growth good?” or “How do we promote ethical economic growth?”

Some reasons why I think growth is sometimes not good:

1.Poverty and inequality are related.  Many people will focus on absolute poverty as the central issue.  Clearly, issues of absolute poverty are important.  As Christians, we should be invested in anti-poverty efforts that ensure people have enough to eat and a place to live.  But relative poverty is also important—a concept that considers one’s wealth and resources in relationship to others in society.  Relative poverty can negatively impact one’s social networks, employment, educational opportunities, and political involvement. Growing inequality is often linked with increased social isolation (that is, the poor living with the poor, and the wealthy with the wealthy).   In a world where the wealthy have more than enough, ethical growth must be measured in terms of how the poor fare—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to the wealthy.

2. Value creation matters.  While the ends of growth are important, the means by which growth is received and earned is also important.  How is economic growth achieved?  Is it through individuals having more creative power to exercise?  Is it through business being able to get more out of workers and manage the process more effectively?  In an economic marketplace where businesses have more power than individuals, and the poor are at the bottom of commodity chain processes, ethical growth demands attention to increasing the capacity of the poor to be involved in more active and significant ways in the economy. It should increase the potential of those at the bottom to be involved in value-creation activities.

3. Relationships are central.  The rise of a free-market system is connected in some ways to a more depersonalized market.  Most of us do not know the people that we are involved with in economic transactions.  But this does not mean those relationships do not exist.  Many assessing economic growth center on the individual as the basic unit of analysis, and maximizing individual (or the sum of individual) well-being as the end goal.  But as Christians, why should we assume the individual is the central variable of analysis?  In my study of religious communities engaging in debates over international trade, I find that they all prioritize right relationships and community as a central goal of economic life.  What would it mean to demand ethical and life-affirming relationships as a basis for market transactions?

Although economic issues are often considered distinct from moral issues, many voices (religious and otherwise) are challenging this assumption.  As a sociologist, I recognize that markets are social constructions, and values are embedded within them.  As a Christian, I want to live in right relationships (with others, with God, with the earth).  For me, this means asking how engage in more ethical relationships within a depersonalized market, and how to promote policies that prioritize (more) healthy relationships within the marketplace.

 

 


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