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.

The Perfect Gift: Is it MONEY?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series The Perfect Gift

A Fistful of Cash

The hunt is on! With Black Thursday and Friday behind us, the holiday shopping season is in full swing. Are you looking for the perfect gift for each person on your list? What’s the perfect gift to give—or to receive?

Could it be cash?

We like to think of gift giving as an act of altruism, a freely given expression of affection and love toward another. But gift giving can be complicated. In every society, gift giving follows certain informal rules; we intuitively know these rules even if we can’t always articulate them.

These rules become starkly apparent when we give the wrong gift—or get the wrong gift.

Let’s start today with money, the ultimate arbiter of value. For some, money is the perfect gift. It takes all the guesswork out of the equation. No need to intuit what the other person really wants. It’s very simple: The receiver uses the money to purchase exactly what he or she wants. What can be more satisfying than that?

But giving or getting money isn’t always so satisfying. Gifts of money make economic sense in a cold rational way; but gifts are not rational in the economic sense. Gifts are more about our values and emotions. And gifts of money, like all gifts, follow a certain social code.

Did your grandparents ever give you a holiday gift of money? This use of money as a gift is socially acceptable. It’s OK for a grandparent to give gifts of money to a grandchild. But the other way around—a grandchild giving a gift of money to a grandparent—is a violation of the social code. This is true even if the grandparent could really use the money, and the grandchild is affluent.

How about a holiday gift of money—to your spouse or significant other? The social code here varies from couple to couple. Generally, a gift of money does not convey the love and thoughtfulness that a gift should convey, but I know couples where money is the perfect gift.

How about giving a gift of money—to your boss? This is clearly a violation of the social code. Giving a purchased gift, however, often is not.

Is “money” the perfect gift?

Would you be happy giving or getting a gift of money for the holidays?

What is your definition of “The Perfect Gift”?

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.

Thanksgiving: Know the “Three and Out” Gratitude Rule?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Thanksgiving
Ari Weinzweig Managing Ourselves from Zingermans

Click this cover to visit Zingerman’s webpage for the book.

Yesterday was a traditional day of giving thanks, but we’re surrounded by opportunities to express gratitude every day—if only we look for them.

For example, do you know the “three and out” rule?

Thanksgiving is our theme this week. So far, we’ve discussed how more Americans traveled yesterday than at any time since 2007, the rise of gigantic “mutant turkey” on the Thanksgiving menu, the cost of the holiday, and whether we should boycott big-box stores that were open Thanksgiving.

Today, we end the week with a positive practice about thankfulness. This positive practice comes from Ari Weinzweig, CEO and co-founder of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In his latest book, Managing Ourselves, he recounts the rule:

“When I feel my energy sliding into the negative realm, I find someone around me—whether in person, on the phone, or via email, and I thank them. Sincerely. For something that they’ve done that I honestly do appreciate. I always get back positive energy. Then I immediately find someone else and do it again. Bingo. I get back more positive energy. Within a matter of minutes, I repeat my act of appreciation a third time. Voila! More positive energy.”

Psychologists who study happiness uniformly report that the expression of gratitude elevates positive emotions—in the giver and the receiver. Ari’s “three and out” rule is a good way of putting that insight into practice.

Who or what are you grateful for?
Would you try the “three and out” rule and tell us what happened?

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.

Changing Relationships: Who needs marriage, anyway?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series changing relationships
OV Pew 2014 Public Is Divided over Value of Marriage

CLICK this Pew graphic to read the entire Pew report.

Marriage and family are often considered to be the bedrock of society, but values about these institutions are changing.

One shift is rising support for legalizing same-sex marriage. But changing values about traditional marriage is an even bigger trend, at least in terms of sheer numbers.

What’s your view? Is society better off if marriage and children are a priority? Or, is society just as well off if people have different priorities?

You have plenty of company either way. Half of all Americans (50%) now say that society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and kids, according to a new Pew poll. And, 46% of Americans disagree, saying that society is better off if people make marriage and children a priority in their lives.

Younger Americans are much more likely than older Americans to say that society is just as well off if people have other priorities. Two-thirds of Americans who are 18 to 29 years of age say so, as do a majority of Americans (53%) who are 30 to 49. Americans who are 50 years of age or older are more likely to say that society is better off if getting married and having kids are priorities.

If a couple wants to spend the rest of their lives together, do you think they should get legally married? A majority of Americans say yes, but again we see differences by age. Just over one-third of Americans 18 to 29 believe that those who want to be together for the rest of their lives should get married, compared to half of Americans who are 50 to 64 years of age. The oldest group (65 and older) is the most likely to say that getting legally married is important if a couple wants to spend their lives together.

Have you or did you make marriage and having children a top priority in your life?

Should people get legally married if they want to spend the rest of their lives together?

Hopes for Children: Why are parents in rich nations pessimistic?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Hopes for Children
CLICK THE CHART to visit the Pew website and learn more about these reports.

CLICK THE CHART to visit the Pew website and learn more about these reports.

Rising affluence usually translates into optimism about the future. One of the chief findings from the vast World Values Surveys is that economic development generally elevates happiness, well-being, and satisfaction with life.

Why, then, are so many people in affluent societies pessimistic about their children’s future?

The majority of Americans and Europeans don’t believe today’s children will be better off financially than their parents, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. In fact, the citizens of most of the countries with advanced economies are pretty gloomy about their children’s prospects. Conversely, the citizens of many emerging-market societies see a bright future for their children.

The reason for these differences is the rate of economic development. This is shown clearly in this graph from Pew. Those who live in nations with the fastest GDP growth are optimistic about their children’s future. China and Vietnam are prime examples. Nations with slow growth (like the US) or negative growth (like Italy or Spain) exhibit lots of pessimism.

Other factors matter, of course. Argentineans, Lebanese, and Tanzanians are experiencing fast GDP growth, but they are less optimistic than they should be, given their rate of economic change. Conversely, Ukrainians have experienced negative economic growth but they are more optimistic than nations with similar economic experiences.

How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future prospects of today’s children?

Are your surprised that so many people in affluent societies are pessimistic about their children’s future?

Children’s Values: What’s the most important value to teach children?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Children's Values
Classroom photo in Wikimedia

THEY’RE WAITING. WHAT ARE WE TEACHING? (Photo by Anittos, provided via Wikimedia Commons.)

Children learn their basic values at home by observing their parents’ behavior and by talking with them. However, children may or may not learn the values that are the most important to you.

What values or qualities do you think are important to instill in children? Which value is the most important one?

In a new survey, the Pew Research Center asked Americans about the values they believe are especially important to teach children. Before I reveal any findings, consider the following list of 12 values.

Which one is the most important value to teach children?

  • Curiosity
  • Religious faith
  • Obedience
  • Tolerance
  • Persistence
  • Empathy
  • Creativity
  • Independence
  • Being well-mannered
  • Helping others
  • Being responsible
  • Hard work

(Note that respondents could name up to three values as the most important.)

Here are Pew results: More than nine of ten American adults (93%) say that “being responsible” is especially important to teach children, with more than half (55%) selecting this value as the single most important one. Belief in the importance of teaching responsibility is widespread. Across the political spectrum, from consistently conservative Americans to consistently liberal Americans, responsibility is seen as the most important value to impart to children.

For example, 96% of Americans who are consistently conservative say “being responsible” is important, with well over half (61%) naming it as the most important value to each children. At the other end of the political spectrum, 92% of consistently liberal Americans say “being responsible” is especially important to teach children, with 47% naming it as the most important.

There is even more common ground when it comes to the values that Americans believe are important to teach children, as we’ll discuss tomorrow. Of course, there are also sharp differences along ideological lines, which we’ll cover later in the week.

Do you agree that “being responsible” is most important on this list?
If not, which value tops your list—and why?
What are the top three on your list of qualities children should acquire?

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?