Archive for April, 2009

When Does a Conversation Step Over the Line?

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

How Jewish is Hollywood?

A few weeks ago we discussed African American elites and their privileged place in the socioeconomic hierarchy of the United States? Interesting conversation and one worth having. Here is another…

From the early days of the founding of this country, a belief running through this largely Christian culture has been that Jews are an enemy of the christian churches, will suffer the displeasure of God until they accept Jesus, and in more recent years, are members of a group that is intent on bringing down the United States government. Jewish people, many god fearing Christian Americans assert, and some very powerful ones at that, control both the banking and entertainment sectors of our society.

For those of you who do not know the history, and I’ll assume that this represents most of you, the Christian churches have always had a rather rancorous relationship with Jewish people. In spite of the fact that Jesus lived and died as a Jew, and presumably will still be a Jew when/if he ever returns. In spite of the fact that early followers of Christ who wrote the Christian New Testament all considered themselves to be Jewish throughout their lives (yes, I’m not kidding). Jewish Christians turned against their Jewish brethren and throughout the years painted members of this group as the persecutors and murderers of Jesus–not the Romans. Why this happened is an interesting story, and one that I’ll leave you to explore if you have any inclination to do so.

But the bottom line is that Jewish people have long suffered the wrath of Christians with long (albiet distorted) memories and short tempers…and a predilection to savage and brutal behavior. Martin Luther, for example, perhaps the most important figure in the emergence of Protestantism, wrote the script for Adolph Hitler. “Round up the Jews, the scourge of civilization, and put them in work camps or kill them,” is essentially what he said. (Here’s a summary.)

So it is with this in mind that I’m led to the current posting about the prevalence and power of Jewish moguls in Hollywood. Keep in mind that Hollywood does not determine this culture — even though it certain plays a role in how we see ourselves as a people. To understand my reluctance to post the article one only has to read some of the comments that readers made about it. Some are thoughtful and considered, but all too many demonstrate a near total lack of understanding of a very complex issue. For those in this group, the article merely confirms their anti-Semitic thinking.

So when is it acceptable to open up a “pandora’s box” of bigotry and misinterpretation? A few years back the Jewish Theological Seminary sponsored a coffee table book that described how Hollywood is run by Jewish people. It is called “Entertaining America,” in case you’re interested. Hmm… Check out the article and reflect on the implications.

Race and Advertising — We’re in a New World Now

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

“Race Becomes More Central to TV Advertising”

As a sociologist, I’m always reflecting on cause and effect. So, for example, once the parade is underway, does the horse pull the cart or does the momentum of the cart motivate the horse to keep moving? Did the Civil Rights Movement occur because Americans had altered their views about race? Or did their view points change largely because this movement got underway and led to cultural transformations that they could no longer ignore.

In a similar vein, what role do the mass media and advertising have in the continued alteration of our perceptions about people of different racial and cultural groups? Are media decision-makers telling us that multiculturalism is “hip” and we are now buying the message just like any other message? Or are the thoughts and standards of the public changing such that the magicians of Madison Avenue and Hollywood Blvd. must get on board the multicultural express.

When I see a brochure advertisement for Penn State with a photo of five people from five different cultural groups, there is a side of me that feels cynical, as though someone felt the need to be inclusive of everyone. A likely case of political correctness, I surmise. But at the same time, if I saw the same brochure with students of only one background, I’d be equally cynical and wonder what they were thinking to use such a photo. Like the statue of the children playing on the Hintz Family Alumni Center — who are all white. There’s just something about that statue that does not sit well with me.

And yet…I despise political correctness. And yet…what was the artist thinking? And yet…thankfully the artist didn’t go out of his or her way to find child models who were all ethnoracially different. And yet…why didn’t he or she do this?

It’s quite a “catch-22″–you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Clearly this article is telling us that we’re on the threshold of a new era of race relations and that it’s bound to be positive for everyone, even as there are sure to be a few bumps in the road as we move forward. What do you think?

What’s Funny About Obama…And What’s Not.

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

In a world full of smart people, it seems we all still struggle with the question of where the line between funny and offensive should be drawn. My personal take has always been that people who get easily offended shouldn’t take themselves so seriously (mostly because, in all likelihood, no one else takes THEM seriously).

In this instance, I’d like hear your thoughts on some of the very predictable jokes that have found their way into our cultural as part of the “first black president inauguration package.” Let me preface these with my own reaction – LMFAO. I imagine some of these are gonna be touchy so if you feel a little uncomfortable, breathe . . . wooo-saaa . . . or picture Dave Chapelle doing it on his show and maybe you can find some humor in them.

And maybe not. Maybe none of them are funny; perhaps they’re all in bad taste.


5. Basketball Obama

Of course all black people play basketball! Even the Ivy League lawyer types who make it to the White House. The only thing more stereotypical to highlight from his personal hobbies would be if he were caught playing spades with some friends on election night.

4. Obama’s Stimulus Bill

. . . maybe not the bill you expected, but with the rising cost of food, jobs being lost and a president who never misses a chance to brand himself we all should have seen this one coming. I wonder if this gives you an extra discount on “black” foods like watermelon and chicken. (O.K., forget I said that.)

3. Obama Fried Chicken

Speaking of chicken (lol), well what do you know – seems like the president in cashing in on the community. Obama Fried Chicken, right in my neighborhood here in New York City. (Really. I couldn’t make this up even if I tried.) True to Obama’s diplomacy, it seems like the store offers Gyros for Greeks, Bagels for Jews, Pizza for Italians, and Halal meats for Middle Easterners.

2. The Gift of Music

I put this one high on my list of favorites because Obama actually brought this on himself. Since it seems to be well established that black people love music, Obama decided to share the love by giving the Queen of England an iPod as a gift. WHAT! LOL! It’s hard to imagine how folks get along in life without some back-in-tha-day tunes but Obama won’t have it. The jury is still out as to whether it was pre-loaded with some old school love jams and Motown favorites. But it did seem to include a few of his best talks. Now that’s one confident man who could do that! And speaking of confidence…

1. Swagger Like Barack

John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama all die and go to heaven. God looks down from his throne and asks McCain, “Do you think you deserve to be in heaven?”

McCain takes a breath and then replies, “Well, I think so because I was a great leader and tried to follow the words in your great book.” God looks down and then says, “You can sit to my left side.”

So, McCain takes his seat and then God asks the same question to Hillary, “Do you think you deserve to be in heaven?” Hillary thinks for a second and then replies, “I think so because I have been fighting for the rights of so many people for so long.” God again looks down and this time says, “You can sit to my right side.”

Finally God turns to Barack Obama and asks, “Do you think you deserve to be in heaven?”
Obama smiled and replied, “I think you’re in my seat.”

Alot of people (mostly white) think Obama has a “God complex”. But it’s not a complex at all – it’s swagger! Swagger is a subtle thing that many people who are not black don’t seem to get. (Sorry.) Swagger is about one thing: respect. Rest assured, if President Obama feels disrespected, he will find himself dodging the “angry black man” bullet.

Check out this interesting article: “Cartoonists Tread Lightly When Drawing Obama”

The Mess Beneath the Words

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

This article critiques the way political groups find ways to discuss the brutal facts of war and combat without having to upset anyone in the process. Similarly, you might notice how we learn to use and not use certain terms in our conversations about race and culture by using words that “scrub up” the facts that are uncomfortable to face. And so we use language that permits us to exchange ideas without having to feel the facts that lie below those ideas. Think about it: We can discuss “inequality” without picturing children who truly do not know where their next meal is coming from — those facing empty refrigerators and no heat or roofs over their heads — or imagining others who regularly throw out large amounts of edible food and have more than enough warm space in their homes. And when we discuss “privilege,” we don’t have to imagine individuals with an attitude of detached entitlement to comfort and status, people who may actually be connected to that empty refrigerator. (Those privileged individuals, by the way, would clearly be anyone who is reading this blog — if we contrast our lives to the less fortunate two-thirds of the world’s population.)

Read the article:
“The Words Have Changed, But Have the Policies?”

Consider the term “enemy combatant.” Many agree that this term is functional to us. This is tantamount to agreeing on a stereotype without having to consider the person who is being labeled “enemy combatant.” How different is this than calling someone “ghetto” or “dot-head” or “illegal immigrant”? “Dot head” is a great term here because that mark on the forehead of a person who is Hindu (the “bindi” or “tilaka”) actually has meaning that is related to a religious belief system as well as a person’s station in life. This is quite different than “ghetto” — a term that refers to an existing geographic location, an actual physical place that some people would always consider a “neighborhood” and not a “ghetto.” How many of us could walk through New York City and agree on which parts of it are actually “ghettos,” for example?

So “enemy combatant” doesn’t reveal the meaning behind some line that we draw in the sand. How do we determine who is on one side of it and who is on another? So we must mystify and whitewash our language in order to convince ourselves that a person is inherently bad or good or violent or of one mind or another.

Now reflect on the article with the following questions in mind:

1. Which terms of the race dialogue fail to personalize life conditions and experiences that are important to understand?
2. To what degree is the current (Obama) administration constrained by the same assumptions as the former (Bush) administration?
3. How much are we being manipulated so that our collective thinking gels into a mindset that supports the status quo? And how might that benefit YOU and for all of us?

With all of this in mind, I feel obliged to relay what President Obama said yesterday to a group of Turkish students: The United States is like a giant oil tanker. I moves very slowly and cannot be easily turned. Give it time…give me time. We cannot change things over night. (I’m not putting quotes around this because I don’t recall his exact words.) So perhaps he sees some things more clearly than it might at first seem. Who’s to say?

So You Think You Deserve an "A," Do You?

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

I’m reluctant to say much about this for fear of being labeled a crusty old relic who is out of touch with the demands of the new global marketplace and the difficulties of landing a job or a position in some post graduate program. However, as we enter the final weeks of this academic year, I suppose now is as good of a time as any to push the issue, even if it doesn’t have much to do with race and ethnicity.

I do want to say that it’s a relief that some people are starting to seriously explore this issue of grades and entitlement. Here at Penn State I’ve watched the total number of “A” grades jump from 27 percent when I started teaching in 1990 to over 40 percent today. I’m reasonably certain that students have not gotten THAT much smarter, although I’m happy to stand corrected if I’m wrong.

This issue doesn’t stop here at Penn State but rather appears to be a nationwide phenomenon — and one that is most visible at more expensive private schools. And from within my own anecdotal experience, grade inflation has occurred at the same time as we see a widespread decline in reading — which is to say, my students seem to read less and less.

Just read the article. I’m sure you’ll have much to say: “Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes”

I want to add that many schools have pursued policies of “grade deflation,” in which they have tried to actually limit the overall number of A grades. Check this out from USA Today:

Since Princeton took the lead among Ivy League schools to formally adopt a grade-deflation policy three years ago — limiting A’s to an average 35% across departments — students say the pressure to score the scarcer A has intensified. Students say they now eye competitive classmates warily and shy away from classes perceived as difficult.

“It used to be that you’d let someone copy your notes if they were sick,” says Mickel, 21, of Monroe, La. “Now, if someone misses classes, you’d probably still let them, but you’re also thinking: ‘Gee, you might get the A while I don’t.’”

There is no quota in individual courses, despite what students think, says Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel. Still, the policy has made an A slightly more elusive. In the first two years, A’s, (A-plus, A, A-minus), accounted for 41% of undergrad grades, down from 47% the two previous years.

Though a typical Princeton overachiever might blanch at the mere mention of a B, the university is sticking by its policy, Malkiel says. Students’ employment and graduate school placements actually have improved the past two years, she says.

Perhaps we’ll start doing this at Penn State.