Race in America: Is racism a form of “mental illness”?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Race in America
Al Sharpton with Esaw Garner

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.—Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton with Esaw Garner, the widow of Eric Garner, at a protest in the Staten Island neighborhood where Eric Garner died after a choke hold by a police officer. (Photo by Thomas Good is provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

The grand jury decision to not indict the New York City white police officer whose choke-hold resulted in the death of an unarmed black man sparked outrage by liberals and conservatives alike—especially as it followed the earlier grand jury decision to not indict the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

Together, these cases raise once again the troubling, persistent questions of race, race relations, and racism in America.

One prevailing answer to those questions: Racism is a form of mental illness. But, is it?

We have a tendency to think of racism this way, observes sociologist James M. Thomas in a recent issue of the journal Contexts. Thomas cites celebrities Paula Deen and Mel Gibson as examples of those “who have pledged publicly to seek treatment for their racism—reflecting a growing tendency to frame racist acts as a mental health issue.” Thomas’ analysis shows that framing of racism as mental illness is not confined to a few high-profile cases, but a widespread phenomenon.

The view of racism as mental illness is reinforced by the strength of the value of individualism in American society. It locates the source of the problem in the individual. Racism is seen as individual disease that can be treated with “individual treatment protocols” like psychological or drug therapies.

The problem with this framing, says Thomas, is that it focuses on the “lone racist” and underplays the larger cultural and structural causes of racism and its perpetuation. It focuses on the symptom rather than the underlying cause.

Sociologist Claude Fischer commented at length about Thomas’ argument; he pointed out several of the “institutional and structural features of society that reinforce ethnic and racial inequities.” These features include: “the way school systems are structured, funded and staffed; persisting neighborhood segregation; the several-generational consequences of low wealth accumulation and educational attainment; political districting that effectively weakens minority votes; and policing practices that have the consequence of disproportionate punishment.”

Do you think racism is—or isn’t—a form of mental illness?

What do you see as the underlying causes of racism in America?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

Banned Books: Why are books challenged?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Banned Books
CARE TO READ A FAMOUS CASE STUDY OF BOOK BANNING? On Monday, in Part 1 of this series, I recommended Kevin Birmingham's new book about worldwide response to James Joyce's "Ulysses." Click this cover image to visit the book's Amazon page.

CARE TO READ A FAMOUS CASE STUDY OF BOOK BANNING? On Monday, in Part 1 of this series, I recommended Kevin Birmingham’s new book about worldwide response to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Click this cover image to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Book censorship is a time-honored tradition. Banning books is alive and well in America today. Today, we consider why books are challenged—the reasons cited by those who attempt to ban books in our schools and libraries.

What do you think is the main reason?

This week, as most of America’s schoolchildren are going back to school, we’ve examined new attempts to ban ‘demonic’ books, the No. 1 banned book in the last 10 years, self-censorship by authors in our climate of surveillance, and the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week this month and 451 Degrees, a high-school book club devoted to reading banned books. (By the way, I asked my son about Captain Underpants, the No. 1 banned book in the last decade. Had he read it in elementary school? “Yes,” he said. “It was kinda funny, but pretty stupid.”)

We conclude this week by considering the reasons why books are challenged.

There have been 5,099 challenges to books from 2000–2009, according to the ALA. Here are the main reasons why books are challenged. (Note that some books are challenged for multiple reasons, so the figures below don’t total 5,099.)

  • “Sexually explicit” material (1,577 challenges)
  • “Offensive language” (1,291 challenges)
  • “Unsuited to age group” (989 challenges)
  • “Violence” (619 challenges)
  • “Homosexuality” (361 challenges)

More challenges are made to books in school libraries than any other place, followed by challenges to books used in classrooms and then books available in public libraries. There are relatively few challenges to books used in college or in academic libraries, according to the ALA.

Are you surprised to learn that “sexually explicit” material is the most commonly made charge?

Of these five reasons, which one is the most important to you?

Which of the five is the least important to you?

Banned Books: How about a book club—for banned books?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Banned Books

Banned Books Week Virtual Read-outPeaceful protest in defense of one’s principles is one of the core American values, as I describe in United America. In the political arena, it’s called critical patriotism. How does this same spirit play out in the literary sphere?

How about a book club devoted to reading only banned or challenged books?

A group of students at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago did just that. They call themselves “451 Degrees” in honor of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s book itself has been challenged and banned, which is ironic given that it describes a world where reading is forbidden and books are burned.

Members of 451 Degrees devote themselves to reading books that are challenged, controversial, or banned. The book club and the Lane Tech student body won the Illinois Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Award in 2013 for their protest of The Chicago Public School’s banning of Persepolis, a book by Marjame Satrapi. (Read more about the award here.)

Later this month, the American Library Association (ALA) is hosting its annual Banned Books Week (September 21–27, 2014). If you want to participate, you can. The ALA is inviting readers to make and post videos on the Virtual Read-Out YouTube channel in support of intellectual freedom. You can read from a banned book, or discuss a banned book and what it means to you. Celebrity videos are featured on the Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out. (Want to participate? Here’s the Banned Book Week Virtual Readout page with information for participants and links to earlier videos.)

What do you think of the 451 Degrees book club?
Would you support a similar club in your local school?
Do you plan to participate in this year’s Banned Books Week?

Enjoy this brief video that served as the official Banned Book Week Video Trailer last year …

Get Out the Vote: For some, the real goal is voter suppression

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Get Out the Vote
2000 Florida presidential election ballot and box

The 2000 Florida presidential election is now so infamous that this voting stand, ballot and ballot box from that election is now an exhibit in the state’s museum in Tallahassee.

NOTE FROM DR. WAYNE BAKER—Columnist Terry Gallagher has been exploring Americans’ voter apathy and challenges to raising the level of participation.

While many observers bemoan low voting turnout, not everybody sees it as a problem.

In fact, some political types embrace “voter suppression” as the key to electoral victory.

Their goal is not to persuade more people to support their candidate or position, but instead to discourage their opponents from voting at all.

“The tactics of voter suppression can range from minor ‘dirty tricks’ that make voting inconvenient, up to blatantly illegal activities that physically intimidate prospective voters to prevent them from casting ballots,” according to Wikipedia. “Voter suppression could be particularly effective if a significant amount of voters are intimidated individually because the voter might not consider his or her single vote important.”

Voter suppression is far more than minor dirty tricks, though. In Florida in 2000, which proved decisive for George W. Bush’s election as president, the United States Commission on Civil Rights said that “statistical data, reinforced by credible anecdotal evidence, point to the widespread denial of voting rights. . . . . The disenfranchisement of Florida’s voters fell most harshly on the shoulders of black voters.”

One of the seemingly innocuous ways to suppress voting is to require potential voters to show photo identification to cast a ballot.

So what? Not a big deal for most of us.

Turns out that studies have shown that 18 percent of all seniors and 25 percent of African-Americans don’t have picture IDs.

Do too many people vote?
Why would we make it more difficult?

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS THIS SUMMER: Terry Gallagher has written about a wide range of topics. You can read more than 100 of his past columns by clicking on this link. Email us at [email protected] with suggestions for Terry. And Please, we always invite you to comment (below) or to share this column on Facebook (use the blue-“f” icons).

Change of Heart: The real crisis churches face.

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Change of Heart

Click on this chart to read the entire 2014 report from the Public Religion Research Institute.

Christian leaders defending a traditional ban on homosexuality often say that the future of the church is threatened by any softening of the anti-gay wall that encircles thousands of American churches. But leading researchers—including a self-proclaimed supporter of evangelical Christianity, George Barna—say the real crisis is the widespread impression among millions of young adults that churches are hateful organizations persecuting their gay and lesbian friends and relatives.

The most helpful chart displaying these findings, at a glance, comes from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a highly respected center for research on religion in America. The chart appears, above, and you also can visit PRRI’s website to read the entire report. But evangelicals tend to discount such polling as irrelevant.

From the heart of the American evangelical community, though, comes the work of pollster George Barna, who is such a strong supporter of this faith group that he describes his work as “facilitating a spiritual and moral revolution.” By all accounts, his Barna Group research follows accepted standards for polling but the signature style in Barna’s columns and books is interpreting the news from an evangelical perspective.

That’s why it was so startling in 2009 to read about Barna’s research, after interviewing a sample group of homosexuals that “27 percent met the ‘born again’ criteria we use.” That finding may not be “startling” to most readers—but it was explosive news to Barna’s evangelical base. In fact, Barna says now that he was shocked by the response from his audience.

In 2010, Barna wrote, “The reaction to that finding was shockingly hateful–not everyone who wrote to or called us responded in that manner, of course, but an amazingly large share of the notes that came in were venomous. A number of emails questioned my faith and salvation. Several outright condemned me and denied the possibility that I am a follower of Christ. I am used to being challenged and am comfortable with debates about how we apply our faith, but the hostility quotient broke the meter after that release.”

He concluded, “After that experience it has been much easier for me to understand the distaste so many gays have for the Christian body – and why so many young adults who are not gay have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the conservative Christian juggernaut.”

For more than a decade, Barna has been studying trends in Christian attitudes toward what Barna now calls “LGBTQ Rights.” In Barna’s latest overall report on these trends, in 2013, the polling firm concludes that American Christianity is nearing a historic tipping point. The group Barna calls “Practicing Christians under 40” has moved significantly toward favoring “changing laws to enable more freedom for the LGBTQ community” from 34 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2013. Lagging behind them are “Practicing Christians over 40,” who have moved from 23 percent approval across the decade to 32 percent approval in 2013.

Barna now regularly warns church leaders that anti-gay attitudes are hurting Christianity in America.

What do you think of George Barna’s experience?

Do you agree with these findings and Barna’s warning to churches?

Change of Heart: Who is teaching Americans about gay marriage?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Change of Heart

Ellen DeGeneres and Portia on magazine covers“She has been out for so long that it is no longer an issue—and older white women feel comfortable with her show. She normalizes LGBT people.” That’s one way a Pew research report summarizes Ellen DeGeneres’s influence across America.

Legalization of same-sex marriage seems inevitable, large majorities of Americans say in recent polls. This interactive map provided by Pew shows how big clusters of states that have legalized gay marriage are pressing across the U.S. from East and West coasts and the Midwest in mid 2014. But, you can re-set the Pew map to show the status in earlier years. Flip the date back to 2002 and you’ll see: Not one state allowed same-sex marriage.

Americans have had to adjust to this change at lightening speed. Research and media reports conclude: America’s most reliable, friendly, funny guide through this era of cultural change is—Ellen.

There’s no question that Ellen is the most famous gay American, Pew concludes in one study. Since she came out in 1997, Americans have watched her fall in love, mature in her relationships and get married to her partner Portia. Magazine cover stories and TV celebrity shows also have shown Ellen stumbling, problems arise in her marriage—and, this week, on the cover of Closer magazine Americans are watching them come through marriage counseling to renew their vows.

Pew concludes: “More than anyone else, Ellen DeGeneres is the face of LGBT America. Still. That’s the verdict of two new Pew Research Center surveys, one of the general U.S. population and the other of LGBT Americans specifically.

“Not only was the comedian and television host by far the most frequently cited example of a gay or lesbian public figure in the general-population survey, she and President Obama were the leaders when LGBT Americans were asked to name a well-known figure who’s been important in advancing the rights of LGBT people.”

When Ellen first came out, the public backlash reportedly sent her deep into depression for a time. But the multi-talented star quickly recovered. Today, she ranks No. 46 on the new Forbes list of the world’s most powerful women. She also ranks No. 17 on Forbes’s list of “richest women in entertainment.”

Forbes reports: “Daytime’s most likable TV personality—at least according to industry-standard Q scores—keeps dancing her way up our list. She managed to set two records within 24 hours this year: first, the now-famous ‘selfie’ photo she took with a handful of A-list celebs as she hosted the Oscars became the most re-tweeted Twitter post in history—a record previously held by President Obama. The live post-Oscars episode of her popular syndicated talk show the following day became the most-watched in the program’s 11 years on air. Aside from the ratings success of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the 56-year-old CoverGirl is beefing up her producing roster. Her production company is working on pilots for the CW and NBC, and cable network HGTV will air a DeGeneres-produced design competition series next year.”

So, what do you think of Ellen?

Are there other important men or women who’ve taught you about gay relationships?

Change of Heart: Which religious groups are welcoming gay marriage?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Change of Heart
Pew chart of change toward gays in American churches

CLICK this chart to visit the Pew website and read the entire report.

PEW research, published in the spring of 2014, concludes that America has flipped on gay marriage.

“In Pew Research polling in 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57% to 35% margin,” Pew reports. “Since then, support for same-sex marriage has steadily grown. Today, a majority of Americans (54%) support same-sex marriage, compared with 39% who oppose it.”

Because the United States is distinctive among the world’s nations for the intensity of religion in our culture, this also means that the vast majority of Americans identify with religious groups. As “Americans” change attitudes on any issue, by definition, it means the members of America’s religious groups are changing their attitudes. That’s different than saying official church policies are changing, but the trend is powerful, Pew concludes.

Within that larger change, Pew finds:

  • AGE MATTERS—A majority of younger Americans, people who are under 30 now, have approved of gay marriage for more than a decade. Clearly, the cultural shift is driven by a dramatic generational change in attitudes.
  • POLITICAL AFFILIATION MATTERS—Not surprisingly, more conservative Americans are drawn to the Republican party. What is striking in Pew’s new report is the growing gap between Republicans and Democrats on this issue. In 2001, the parties were separated by 22 percentage points on this issue (with 21 percent of Republicans approving vs. 43 percent of Democrats). Now, the gap is 35 percentage points! (32 vs. 67 percent).
  • RACE MATTERS—As Americans have read in headlines nationwide, many black church leaders oppose same-sex marriage and black communities are resisting the idea that gay rights is an extension of the civil rights movement. Pew reports that an 11-point gap has emerged between white and black Americans on this issue (54 percent of white Americans now approving vs. 43 percent of black Americans).
  • GENDER MATTERS—Women always have been more sympathetic toward gay marriage. From 2001 to today, women as a group have been 6 to 10 percentage points more approving than men.

What do you see in these trends?

Why do these factors matter so much? For example, why are women more approving?

COMING WEDNESDAY: Dramatic change in the world’s largest church.