The Personal and the Political: Violence in our World

In talking about one of the recent crises in our world, a friend commented that he/she was trying to refrain from being too political in analysis. Since that time about a week ago, the feminist refrain, “the personal is political,” has been consistently on my mind. When feminists discussed the personal being political, part of the argument is that sexism isn’t just something people (especially women) experience in personal relationships – it’s about the political structures we are a part of shaping all of our relationships. That’s something that’s true for both those who benefit and those who lose.

I’m very aware that as a white, middle-class, well-educated woman living in the United States, too often I have the privilege of allowing myself to think in personal, versus political terms much of the time. When I think about the start of the new school year for my daughters [only two days away!], I can focus on such things about what they will learn or which talents I want to help them develop. I can think about what will make them thrive, the question almost all parents want to think about for their children. Even when I engage with political issues, I can think about the personal…. How will they choose to engage with diversity? How can I constructively teach them about racism today? How can I help them to become better at understanding the perspectives of others?

I am also aware what I DO NOT have to think about, because of my white privilege. Every story of violence, happening in the US Midwest, at the US border, or in Iraq, reminds me of this reality. I don’t wonder if my daughters will be shot out of fear, will be unwelcome because of their immigration status, or will be tortured because of their Christianity. Living in a system where my daughters are largely protected by the state means I can focus on their thriving versus their protection.

Those questions of thriving, while cast as personal, are very political. For white Christians living in the United States, our privilege can blind us to the ways that personal lives are shaped by political realities. For the most part (and I recognize this is not true all the time for everyone), we are materially “safe” from political decisions that are made. My physical life, and those of my children, are usually not threatened by a political policy. Yet the fact that my children benefit from an unequal (and yes, racist) society is just as political as the realities of children being denied their human dignity because of their race or immigration status or religion.

If I am honest, when I engage in causes for justice, it is something I often feel I can pick up (and drop) when I like. I can forget, for an instant, that black men’s lives are not valued when I play with my white daughters. I can forget, for an instant, that praising Jesus doesn’t come with a threat of bodily harm. I can forget, for an instant, about the thousands of Central American children, separated from their families, who are being denied dignity as my daughters are welcomed in their schools and neighborhoods. When in the company of other people, I also find there is even the expectation that I should forget these things… to just relax, to have fun, to enjoy life.

Even as I know that my life and life chances are undeniably intertwined with those of others around me, I can chose to forget this. Here is a list of things I commit to doing — some I’ve mentioned before — to not obscure that reality:

1. Voting and advocating for political change. Police forces, for example, need to have better training, and match the racial demographics of their communities. Immigration law needs to change. Foreign policy needs to take more seriously non-“American” lives. These are often not the single-issue topics that grasp the attention of the public in the United States, but they shape the lives of families everywhere.

2. Acknowledge that the oppression and violence directed towards others is linked with the benefits and protection I receive… that racism doesn’t just affect the lives of Black Americans, but of White Americans. Michael Brown’s death is about both the fact that the lives of Black Americans are undervalued AND that white Americans lives are valued more. Talk with that about my daughters, my students. Many people, for example, don’t believe that we still deal with much institutional racism in our society, which is one of the first steps towards changing it. Education and discussion are important.

3. Use my wealth in ways to support positive and healthy relationships, especially in regards to issues of race, nationality. In this blog, I mention the importance of our purchases.

4. Be critical towards my consumption of media and other public information. In another blog last year, I mentioned why this is so important in shaping stereotypes and how we think about others. One statement made in defense of Darren Wilson (the officer who shot Michael Brown six times) is that he was scared.

5. Pray and Worship and engage in Bible Study. In the gospel of Luke (3:10-14), John the Baptist calls for those repenting and turning to God to be in right relationship with others, especially those who are marginalized. When the crowd asks what to do to repent, he tells them to share your clothes and food with those who have none. When the tax collectors ask what to do, he tells them to not take more money than they must. When the soldiers ask what to do, he tells them to be just with people and to not extort money. I am thankful to serve a God who sees those right relationships with others as central to what it means to believe and repent. I want to join with God in God’s mission for the world. I do not think we should be obedient to God in the name of pursuing justice; we should be obedient because we are called too. However, better understanding God’s heart can help us to live more justly.

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.

 

 

 

 

Hmong, Indian, What’s the Difference?

Recent news on the higher education scene has turned attention to the Asian American case, or cases we should say. A team of education researchers led by Dr. Robert Teranishi used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of California higher education system to make the case that Asian American ethnic groups are not all performing in the “model minority” way. As some readers know, Asian Americans tend to be grouped together as if they were a racial equivalent to “white” “black” and sometimes “Hispanic.” When this kind of grouping occurs, scholars and interested citizens look for similarities and differences between racial groups on outcomes like educational attainment, household income, poverty levels, health etc. From this classification approach Asian Americans tend to appear exemplary on a number of outcomes. Take for example, last year’s Pew report on Asian Americans. Using the American Community Survey, Pew shows an aggregate figure for bachelor’s degree attainment and median household income in 2010 for Asian Americans. As the title of their figure states “Asian Americans Lead Others in Education, Income.”

 

Teranishi and colleagues’ report disaggregates, that is, splits into smaller groups, the Asian American classification using the same data, and this is what they find. In this first graph we see bachelor’s degree attainment across multiple Asian American groups and we find surprising differences across the board. At the one end, Taiwanese and Asian Indian Americans report over 71% within each group with a bachelor’s degree. At the other end, about 12% of Laotian and 15% of Hmong Americans claim the same educational attainment. So while it is the case that Asian Americans as a group appear to have a lot of education, the reality is that only certain groups are showing this level attainment.

Now let’s look at household income. Using the median household income ($66,000 according to the Pew report) for all Asian Americans, Teranishi et al. disaggregate that figure and show the following.

As you can see, at one extreme, Asian Indian Americans exceed the Asian American household income mean by over $21,000 on average. Hmong Americans are below that same mean by almost the same amount. In fact 9 out of the 15 groups are below the Asian American mean. And 7 of these groups are lower than the white American average.

What this suggests is that Asian Americans are highly diverse socioeconomically. To the extent that the model minority myth is applied to this collection of SES-diverse groups, it masks the evident differences among them. Read the full report here to find out more about the benefits of disaggregation especially in higher education within the University of California system. Similar kinds of analyses were conducted by Dr. Paul Ong and associates who disaggregated homeownership and cash public assistance rates across Asian ethnic groups in several different areas of the US. The slide show report on some of their findings is here, and the regional reports are here. Like Teranishi et al.’s report, disaggregation of Asian American homeownership, other assets and public assistance shows that the rates of these socioeconomic patterns vary a lot by Asian ethnic group.

Some might ask: then why is the overall Asian American average so high to begin with. The answer is a matter of population size. Look back at the disaggregated figures. Pick out these groups: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese. These groups take up 83% of all Asian Americans. Statistically, the other groups are not numerically large enough to alter the educational attainment or household income average of the largest six groups since they take up a greater share of the population. We should remember too, sizable numbers of Asian Americans in the larger groups do not share in the picture of “success” that their same-ethnic peers experience.

In our racialized society, we like our groups to be simple; we prefer to ignore the diverse realities within the groupings we create. By using “Asian American” as shorthand for “the successful minority” we mask major differences in the outcomes that presumably all Asian Americans share. Notably, our social programs often utilize this assumption and give next to nothing for vulnerable Asian Americans. This in turn makes Asian American inequalities invisible.

Hopefully more leaders and concerned citizens will grow aware of the problem we create when we use the stereotype of “the high –achieving, hard-working minority.” Reports and studies, like the one produced by Dr. Teranishi that disaggregate the Asian American data story expand our own understanding that this story is not just diverse culturally, but socioeconomically as well.

Unethical Wealth

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report showing wealth has dropped for the bottom 93% of Americans, but for those with wealth levels over about $890,000, wealth has risen by an average of 28% in the last two years.  As the economy starts to recover, it’s clear who is winning and who is losing ground.

Globally, inequality between countries seems to be decreasing, although it’s increasing within countries—and overall.  And one of the biggest drivers of the growth of inequality is the growth in wealth of those with the highest incomes.

Elsewhere I’ve blogged about some of the problems with inequality in terms of social and economic outcomes. An opinion piece by Sean Reardon in the NYT shows that educational outcomes are becoming more divergent for the upper and lower classes, within the United States. While school funding is not the key issue he highlights, it’s part of the story.  In Philadelphia, public schools are looking at cuts of 25%—this translates into the removal of counselors and programs, and increasing class sizes above 30.

In the classes I teach on social change and globalization, students leave class discouraged many days. We spent one session focused on the conditions and power held by many workers involved in different commodities around the world.  We discussed coffee (John Talbot,’s Grounds for Agreement), maize (Elizabeth Fitting’s The Struggle for Maize), tomatoes (Deborah Bardnt’s Tangled Routes), and cotton (Koray Caliskan’s Market Threads). The story of the lack of power held by workers in each of these commodity trades is a consistent theme, and one that can be a struggle to engage.

Sometimes I hear students talking about ethical business or business as mission.  I’d love to see these conversations intersect more with those on issues of inequality. Many conceptions of ethical business often revolve around principles like giving back, not cheating, or refusing to actively exploit others. Yet we rarely think about the distribution of profits, or how businesses and actors are contributing (or challenging) the growing inequality in power held by people around the world.

While many are not thinking in those terms, others area, and I want to highlight one of those cases. I recently had an article published in Latin American Research Review, where I describe the ways some Central American coffee actors think about ethical business practices.  They had both a broader view of what ethical commitments mean, as well as a more integrated understanding of how issues of power and the Gospel are intertwined.

While these evangelicals gave money to their community, and volunteered time to mentoring youth, that was not the central way they practiced social responsibility. They prioritized increasing the value-added nature of work done by coffee farmers.  They did this through agricultural training, but also by challenging some current market structures and dynamics. As one of the leaders suggested, the way they demonstrated their faith was to “introduce values—Christian values, Christian ethics, transparency, and stewardship.”  For them, this meant recognizing that current business practices accepted in the coffee sector had to be challenged.

Giving to those in need may just exacerbate high power and wealth differentials. It’s no surprise that these same actors I interviewed in Central America were critical of US Christian responses to give aid to farmers instead of simply paying higher prices for a product.  For them, to be ethical meant to think about transforming the ways business worked. In my next research project, I’m gathering data to look at how the over $2.3 billion per year from U.S. religious humanitarian organizations is spent in dealing with poverty, and how common (or uncommon) this example from Central America is.  As inequality levels continue to rise, and power becomes more concentrated in the hands of a few, Christians need to be thinking more critically about what it means to engage in ethical practices in our economy.


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