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.

 

 

 

Good Data, Confusing News and the Reinforcing of Stereotypes: Reporting on The Pew Asian American Survey Report

Over the past year I have had the privilege to work with the Pew Research Center on developing what I believe is the most rigorous survey sample of Asian Americans. Given the deep pockets that form the financial base of Pew, I had high hopes that this survey would indeed help us pinpoint better what we can know about Asian America. Indeed, this survey, while smaller in sample than the National Asian American Survey 2008 (3,500 compared to over 5,000), improves upon it and its predecessors in sampling methodology and in simply asking a lot more questions of a random sample of Asian Americans.

“Asian American” is a weird term in the sense that it assumes a commonality among Americans of Asian descent when in fact it’s a massive amalgamation of no less than 20 different nationalities. This dual tension of perceived commonality and diversity is a hallmark dilemma in the social sciences, especially when discussing minority groups. How similar are Asian Americans and how diverse are we? A good survey of Asian Americans needs to account for both.

One of the major problems facing Asian Americans today is the proverbial “positive stereotype” called the “model minority myth.” It asserts that Asian Americans are a racial minority group that embodies American ideals of hard work and discipline and the concomitant material rewards of more (and prestigious) education, greater income, desirable jobs, as well as the social reward of receiving praise from the dominant group. This would overemphasize commonality and de-emphasize diversity.

Why is this a problem? Because a closer look at data on Asian Americans reveals that this myth applies only to very select cuts of the Asian American population and yet is applied to all. In a media-saturated environment like ours, such perceptions are amplified and sow seeds that help grow racialized beliefs about Asian Americans. And anyone who grows up in this culture is susceptible to it.

So survey research and the reporting of such research is not necessarily absolutely neutral; it’s possible that unclear reports of survey research can distort the very reality it supposedly portrays. The recent reporting of the new Pew Research Center’s Asian American Survey (2012) is one powerful illustration of how this plays out.

For example, the Pew study rolls out this statistic we see a lot: Asian American household incomes are higher than the national average. In fact it’s not even just higher by $1000-$2000, it’s almost $15,000 higher (see p.29).

screenshot p.29 Pew Asian American survey report

The report notes a couple of important qualifiers with a couple of cites for readers to reference. Based on the largest Asian ethnic groups, 2 are even higher than the Asian American median. The other four are below that median, and in fact Koreans are just $200 on average higher than the national average. Scholars have also stressed a few other pieces to the puzzle over these high figures, and the Pew report mentions these without putting the parts together.  Asian Americans today are largely immigrant (p.24), but specifically “highly-skilled” immigrants. This means these immigrants have more education (p. 25), and possibly more work experience than other immigrants. In fact the Pew report notes that Asian immigrants even differ from their peers in their countries of origin. For example, 27% of adults (ages 25-64 specifically) in South Korea had a bachelor’s degree, whereas 70% of Korean immigrants (in the same age range) had the same. With such high level of education we should not be surprised that we find a larger proportion in management and professional level (i.e. mostly white-collar) occupations (p. 27). These kinds of jobs usually offer better pay and more consistent pay than most other jobs and about half of Asian America are in this sector compared to about 40% for the rest of the country. Later on (p.33), the report mentions that nearly half of Asian America (47%) resides in one region (and most of these very specifically in one state, California). One of the highest cost-of living regions is the West, and California, and Hawaii exceedingly so.

When we stop to put these parts together, Asian American household income appears higher but no other group in the US has the same internal social dynamics like what we see among them. No other group is dominated by high-skilled immigrants, high educational attainment (acquired largely before arrival to the US), more fulltime workers per household in one of the most expensive states to live in. The report does not apply this degree of rigor, but more importantly we see examples like the following in major news outlets:

“The Pew report, titled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” finds that Asians are the highest-income and best-educated racial group in the U.S. Nearly half (49 percent) of Asian-American adults have a college degree, and they boast a median annual household income of $66,000 (versus the U.S. median of $49,800).” (MSNBC.com 6/19)

“Positive stereotypes about Asian Americans are rooted in reality: They are more educated, wealthier and value work, marriage and family more than Americans as a whole, according to a Pew Research report out today.” (USAToday.com 6/18)

The lack of nuance leaves us with the impression that Asian Americans have it pretty good. What’s so bad about a “positive stereotype?” It allows us to dismiss the concerns of the vulnerable among these so-called model minorities.

Advocacy groups took notice and acted fast. Groups like the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (an umbrella organization of over 30 groups) have now expressed concern publicly over these gross generalizations that have not furthered the conversation but instead may contribute to further misunderstanding Asian America.

So even a report based on census data and a a new state-of-the-art survey of an understudied group can still lead to erroneous reporting from mass media outlets that can reinforce myths.

As part of my calling as a social scientist, its important to address stereotypes with data. What’s challenging is dealing with the media patterns that undermine good data such as running stories that minimize complexity as witnessed by the recent reportage of the new Pew report on Asian Americans.

How else might social scientists help media to make appropriate narrations based on survey data?

 

Family Friendly?

In the days leading up to Father’s Day this past Sunday, one could find a number of advertisements providing helpful suggestions on what to buy for Dad.  Home Depot, for example, suggested men really wanted to be fixing things and involved in construction—a task much easier accomplished with the help of their special “Man” gift card.  Just last month, diamond and flower companies were busy spending dollars encouraging families to give Mom the gifts she deserved.

These holidays remind many of us that the media presentations of family dynamics—and the women and men that make up these families—are often distorted. Educational institutions are increasingly teaching students to be critical in their consumption of many of the gendered images they see in the media. Miss Representation (2011), is but one recent example of a documentary aimed at increasing the awareness about the impacts of current media representations of men and women.

Whether it is stereotypes of men seeking power tools and women seeking diamonds or the hyper-sexualized images of males and females in the media, we need alternatives portraying men and women differently.  In this context, the idea of a family friendly outlet sounds promising.  As someone who listens occasionally to Christian music radio stations, I hear this claim often asserted, and acknowledge they do often offer positive messages.   That said, I often end up changing the dial, or turning off the radio completely, due to a lack of a family friendly encouraging message.

I have not analyzed the songs played on most Christian radio channels or those gracing the Billboard charts for their messages about families and gender.  Nor do I listen enough to pretend to know most of the messages emitted over their airwaves.  We do know that men dominate the industry. In an article available online penned about two years ago, Christianity Today brought attention to the fact that men performed 96% of the top 50 Christian songs of the decade (even as between one-fourth to one-third of Christian artists were women).

While a quick glance at a list of popular songs reveals that a majority do not describe different lived experiences for men and women, a significant amount do.  In one song, a woman is encouraged to find meaning in cleaning up Cheerios. Women are reminded that God is there when they are waiting up anxiously for their spouse to come home.  A girl struggling with her image is fulfilled by the notion that God sees her as beautiful.  I don’t object to the message in these songs. Caring and cleaning for one’s family can be an act of love.  Christian faith should speak into angst over appearances.  But these are not uniquely female issues.

Just as troublesome as the fact that only women are struggling with certain issues is that only men are struggling with others in the songs.  It is a man who is anxious about providing for his family. Men are encouraged to show more leadership in their families. And it is a man who is struggling to connect the dull moments in his work with the larger mission to which he has been called.  Taken together, the models of men and women portrayed in Christian songs promote a restrictive view of gendered roles.

When inspirational messages or short teaching messages about families are shared on the radio, messages are more direct and more normative.  Again, not all provide different teachings for men and women, but some do. One example that stands out is the notion that girls really want to be loved, and boys are competitive and want to succeed—a message even my six-year old sees as ridiculous. Such messages are not confined to Christian radio, but often asserted from pulpits as well.

As a sociologist who teaches on the family, I often remind my students that images of “traditional families” promoted by many evangelical churches (especially those that are largely white and middle/upper class) are not historically accurate. My students read a book written almost 20 years ago, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. In this book, she does an excellent job critiquing the notion that our evangelical models of families are in fact traditional. Some students are often surprised by what they read, and find it challenging to consider the ways culture is embedded in proclaimed Biblical models (progressive and conservative alike).

My observations on Christian radio are not a call to re-ignite mommy (or daddy) wars, or to argue against songs about God drying tears of insecurity, or comforting a lonely mother.  Central to the Christian faith is the idea that being loved by God should be core to our identity.  But I do want to argue against the implicit notion that not being pretty, or not being a good enough mother, are the central issues women care about.  As a parent of three girls, I want more for my daughters.  I want them to hear about women seeking to follow God by taking risks, women fighting injustice in the world, or women wrestling with intellectual and vocational questions.

Family friendly radio claims seem to be based in the fact that they do not air songs with profanity; lyrics are not too sexy; commentators do not make crass jokes. On all accounts, I support these aims. But it’s not enough. A claim of being family friendly should encourage all kinds of families through building them up and building up the members that make them. It should encourage both women and men to lead their families, and encourage them to explore and use their God-given gifts and talents.

At the moment, I have yet to find a station claiming a family friendly label that I would certify. For my family, turning off the station is sometimes the best way forward.

Blue Like Jazz: The Anti-Christianity Christian Film

by Gerardo Marti

The film Blue Like Jazz premieres nationwide next week on April 13th, a film based on the New York Times bestselling memoir by Donald Miller. True to the spirit of the book, which was subtitled, “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” the film includes swear words, drinking, a lesbian character, and is open about the hypocrisy found in the Christian church. The adaptation is fun, poignant, and ultimately religious—and that’s what makes this new film so interesting.

Don Miller is one of the most prominent representatives of a messier modern Christianity, an open and more humanistic orientation toward being a follower of Jesus that avoids a distant “holier-than-thou” stance and relativizes the practices of the modern church. It makes any film based on the book a type of Christian film—more specifically, this new film, featuring an evangelical as the hero, is a new type of “Anti-Christianity” Christian film.

When the book Blue Like Jazz appeared in 2003, it was banned from many conservative Christian bookstores. Not only did it shun a straight-laced image of the faith, it also avoided more strident remarks on the evils of the world, refused to idealize conversion or discipleship, and conveyed stories that were far from the sentimental Sunday School portraits that would have won over the “family-friendly” crowd. Conservative Christians concluded the book did not represent orthodox Christian theology. To top it all off, the book seemed to espouse a more liberal political agenda.

Six years later, a film based on the book arrives—featuring a trailer with a voiceover that says, “I’m ashamed of Jesus”—and a discussion emerges on whether this is a “Christian” film or not.

Conservative Christians have tried to affect the moral content of films through boycotting, like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the gay-themed Priest (1994), and the irreverent comedy Dogma (1999), but boycotting has fallen out of favor. Now the strategy is patronage. Patronage is the active support of films that are morally acceptable, and it is a shrewd strategy that addresses what is most important to movie studios: financial profit. The strategy of patronage succeeded in promoting films like The Omega Code (1999), Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie (2002), Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), the adaptation of the C.S. Lewis novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), the retelling of the Christmas story in The Nativity (2006).

More on this dynamic can be found in my book Hollywood Faith. Some filmmakers believe “Christian” film should only be made by Christians and for explicitly Christian purposes. Only Christian films should be supported. But the world of Anti-Hollywood “Christian” filmmaking is a strikingly political one defined by a fairly tight orthodoxy. Correctness in doctrine and lifestyle are all-important in this realm. Should young children see it? Does it represent a “biblical” understanding of truth? Will “non-believers” be influenced toward the faith? Behind the designation of a properly Christian film is whether conservative churches endorse the film and whether Christian retailers will eventually sell it.

“Christian” filmmakers also struggle to attract the same financing and talent as major Hollywood studios. Low budgets and a tight ideology have soured the label “Christian” film to mean a “sloppy” film, a “cheesy” film, and one that is more interested in spouting a one dimensional propaganda in presenting a gospel message instead of telling a good story.

No surprise then that the lack of strict orthodoxy draws critics from the “Christian” realm for Miller’s new film. Rebecca Cusey writes that there is a virtual “Christian fatwa” against the film. As Paul O’Donnell writes, the film allows for more nuance in understanding evangelicalism, one that is in conversation with forms of secularism and eschews any tone of moral superiority. This is nothing like either Fireproof (2008) or Courageous (2011) which sought to encourage the faithful. Instead, Blue Like Jazz fails to fall into this recent genre of “Christian” film—to the great satisfaction of Don Miller and director Steve Taylor. The film addresses spiritual struggles in a forthright manner, one that is attuned to the complicated, cosmopolitan, and fiercely egoistic society we live in today.

The basic belief guiding the filmmakers of Blue Like Jazz is whoever controls the media controls the culture. If they are to engage with American culture, they must engage the entertainment industry because movies are considered to be the most important medium for shaping values in society. Alex Field in his book The Hollywood Project writes, “the truth is that every day, films are changing people’s minds, stirring up controversy, unearthing compassion for various causes, and inspiring people to make big decisions that ultimately change their lives.”

Filmmakers like Miller are seeking a different type of status: acceptance by mainstream audience. Miller is quoted as saying, “movies about the faith struggle that millions of Americans deal with don’t have to be cheesy.” Even more, such films “can compete with other films at the box office.” Resisting a fundamentalist segregation, Miller wants to attract people regardless of their faith commitments. They went to venues like the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, to find them.

Ralph Winter is another prominent Christian producer and an active member of his Los Angeles Presbyterian church with an impressive string of credits including four of the Star Trek films, all three of the X-Men films, both Fantastic Four films, and a modern remake of Planet of the Apes. Although Winter struggled with whether he could work in the industry and be a loyal follower of God, he is now a prominent role model for many Hollywood Christian hopefuls. Blue Like Jazz seeks to be associated with this kind of quality filmmaking.

So: Is the film merely Don Miller’s personal story put on the screen? Likely not. So many people resonate with Don Miller and his story (and his subsequent speaking and his books) that the film may well be capturing a more recent type of religious orientation within evangelical Christianity today, one that is being legitimated by his film. And one that is threatening to some conservatives.

And the ability to portray this “Anti-Christianity” Christian could spur the production of even more creative work that puts religion and social change into a broader conversation.


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