6 posts from January 2010

January 28, 2010

Colorism: The Hierarchical Nature of Skin Tone that makes “Light Alright”

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

If you’re black, get back.

If you’re brown, stick around

If you’re light, you’re alright

I thought of this old saying when I heard that according to the authors of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid assessed then Senator Obama’s chances at the presidential nomination as good because he is “light-skinned” and “speaks with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." There has been much debate about whether Senator Reid’s comments are racist, but I want to focus on the “light-skinned” element of his remarks.

Skin tone issues abound. Time magazine darkened O. J. Simpson’s mug shot on their cover in June 1994; this alteration was heightened by the fact that an untouched image of Simpson ran on the cover of Newsweek. (See the two covers here and read more about the covers here.) And today, skin lightening creams continue to be a booming business, with sales growing in countries from the Caribbean to Africa and Asia.

clip_image001I have long noticed that a large portion of African Americans who are prominent now or were in the past are very light-skinned. (Many are light-skinned enough to have “passed” for white in an earlier time—a subject discussed in this post.) Think about and/or look at pictures of the following people: Colin Powell, Julian Bond, Eric Holder, Harold Ford, Thurgood Marshall, Edward Brooke, Debra Lee, Douglas Wilder, David Paterson, Deval Patrick, Malcolm X, and of course President Obama. Although these people are light-skinned, some more so than others, as a trained sociologist—or at least as someone beginning to think like one— you are probably wondering whether this is real or whether I am simply overlooking noteworthy African Americans who have a darker complexion, such as Dr. Martin Luther King.

However, research findings indicate that lighter skin is positively related to job status, education, income, and marital status among blacks; dark-skinned African Americans even receive longer prison sentences than the light-skinned. And light-skinned African Americans are over-represented in politics (as reflected by the list above). Further, another study indicates that our political orientation “colors” how we see the skin color of politicians. Partisans who agree with a candidate see him as lighter than he really is, and those who disagree, darken the candidate. Liberal study participants were most likely to rate lightened pictures of Barack Obama as most representative of him, while those who considered themselves conservative rated a darkened picture as most representative of candidate Obama.

Many black people think of colorism as a within group phenomenon. In other words, they think that black people are the ones who use the shade of a person’s skin to assess their worth, affording those with lighter skin better treatment and higher value. In fact, when Spike Lee released the film School Daze (a film in which light-skinned black women and dark-skinned black women battle), many said that Lee was airing dirty laundry. Whatever else you may think of Reid’s comments, they suggest an understanding of the colorism dynamic among Americans, not only African Americans.

What are we to make of this? Because they more closely resemble whites, than their darker-skinned counterparts, both white and black Americans have annointed light-skinned blacks with the higher status attributed to whites. This goes at least as far back as the “house slave”—someone born to a slave owner and an enslaved woman—who may have been treated more kindly and allowed to be in the “big house”.

It is important to note that light-skinned people who were enslaved were sometimes subject to harsher treatment, perhaps because their color broadcasted “slave/master” relationships. This phenomenon—colorism—is not unique to the U.S. In fact, in his recent best seller Outliers: The Story of Success (discussed by Karen Sternheimer in this post), author Malcolm Gladwell, writes of the role of colorism in his mother’s Jamaican family and points to the advantages light skin afforded some of his family and lists this as a factor contributing to his family’s success.

Given the importance of race—skin color—in the larger society, why would gradations of color not be important? Let’s employ stratification theory as a lens to examine this phenomenon. In simplistic terms, this theory tells us that the dominant group has the most access to wealth, power, and prestige; achieving these is also controlled by the dominant group and those who look more like that group can more easily blend into (assimilate) into that group. And through socialization processes we gravitate towards dominant views of beauty and standardization.

Colorism, then, may be seen as learned, an unconscious acceptance and belief that “white is right”. Notably, one historical moment during which the preference for light-skin color, even among blacks, was challenged was during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, a time during which James Brown’s “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” was a major hit. Does that time period teach us anything about how we can combat colorism both in the broader society and within the black community? Do you think research conducted during that time period might have yielded different results than those I described above?

January 25, 2010

Dominance and Disadvantage: Avatars and Blind Sides

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you seen Avatar? The Blind Side? If not, you may want to wait to read this until after you see them!

Both movies deal with issues of power, dominance and subordination, privilege and disadvantage. Both have at least one member of the dominant group as the hero who “saves” at least one member of the subordinate group.

Avatar serves up a battle between humans and the Na’vi for their home planet’s resources, which amounts to a battle over the very lives of the Na’vi. To the Na’vi, all life is interconnected: on their planet any destruction of life, including plants, is tantamount to killing them. James Cameron gives us a beautiful glimpse into a world, culture, and society where there is little inequality and stratification, although leadership positions are inherited.

The paraplegic Marine whose avatar “goes native” (as did Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves) emerges as the savior, rescuer, and leader of the Na’vi. They prevail over the human invaders with their flying partners, ”borrowed” armory, and bows and arrows.


The Blind Side is based on Michael Lewis’s book about the true story of how a rich, white family changed the life of pro-football star Michael Oher, who was a troubled and homeless young man when the family found him. The story culminates with a pro-football contract and snapshots of the real family posing for photos on the football field and other venues.

Throughout the movie, the mother, Leigh Anne, gets some guff from friends for her decision, but has complete support from her family as she takes on the task of saving this young man from the streets and his drug addicted mother.


In both movies, the subordinate group (or the person in the disadvantaged group) is saved by a person from the dominant group. It appears that they have the knowledge, skills, connections, and guts to save the person(s) who are at a disadvantage. Both stories are told from the perspective of the hero or savior..

The “white savior” is a common theme in American films, from Dances with Wolves, Gran Torino, The Soloist, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mississippi Burning, and all the way back to To Kill a Mockingbird. The movies often purport to be about the disadvantaged person, but the narrative is focused on the white savior as hero. We learn much more about who they are and their experience in helping the others rather than seeing the story from the perspective of the disadvantaged person. The purported victim is often simply a device that allows us to reflect on the hero’s actions and motivations – and to identify with the hero.

If one analyzes these movies in the order in which they were released, one does see some improvement in how the disadvantaged person(s) are depicted. In more recent movies, the disadvantaged character is developed more fully and more time is devoted to suggesting how social context and life changes may have been responsible for their plight. On the other hand, all of these movies assume some inability of the disadvantaged to prevail without the white savior’s help. In reality, one does need coalitions between groups to change society from an unjust one to one in which equal rights are afforded to all. It was paramount that white people support the civil rights movement for racial equality, just as it was crucial for men to participate in giving women the vote and important for straight people to understand why marriage rights are important to people who are gay and lesbian.

However, to see so many movies in which the disadvantaged are rescued from their plight from someone in the dominant group is to see our societal power structure and stratification reflected and even justified.

Avatar has the one human save the entire Na’vi society, although this only happens once he partners with the biggest flying creature and assumes leadership. It really bothered me that Cameron gives us this glimpse into a society based on interconnectedness and equality, yet in the end the leader is still chosen by having the biggest weapon. This reliance on our own culture’s emphasis of competition and dominance – success comes from using the biggest gun in the rack – was somewhat disappointing and disruptive to the story line for me.


The Blind Side’s Leigh Anne mentions setting up a scholarship program to give the school “more color”. She also shows some concern about Michael’s biological mother’s struggles with addiction. While saving one person from a life in poverty and violence is certainly a positive activity, nothing is done to alter the situation of other young men and women in the same situation. Nothing is changed in society to deal with the source of the problem so that more young men and women could also live better lives with more opportunities and quality education.

The school that Michael Oher actually attended, Briarcrest Christian School doesn’t appear to have any more “color” or fund raising for these purposes. This movie does seem to be more sensitive and complex than the others listed here. It does include scenes such as the one in which Leigh Anne reflects on her assumptions after the NCAA investigates whether she and her family had taken Michael in solely because they wanted him to play football for their alma mater.

These stories, real or imagined, are stories of the savior hero, not of the disadvantaged person(s). Even when the movie’s purported subject is the person at risk, the story is told from the perspective of the savior. In the Blind Side, we learn much more about Leigh Anne and not much about Michael. In Avatar, we see the world from the Marine’s eyes, not the Na’vi. We are then forced to identify with the role of the “hero”, not with that of the person(s) at risk, as the character becomes our own avatar. However, this blinds us to the other side of the situation as the person(s) at risk become symbolic and unreal, partial characters who serve as foils to our heroism.

Volunteering to help one person does indeed help that one person. But it doesn’t do anything to deal with the conditions that put that person at risk. It doesn’t change the status quo. It can help people in the dominant group feel like they’re doing something important. And while they may be doing just that for that one person, it doesn’t alleviate the context of the problem thus no one else will be spared. Those with privilege will continue to enjoy it at the same time those without it will continue to live in their disadvantaged state. Helping one person may provide some insight into such struggles but it can sometimes help the savior more than the oppressed.

What other movies present this type of story? Here are a few others I thought of: Radio, Hardball, Finding Forrester, Dangerous Minds, Cool Runnings, Thunderheart, Cry Freedom, and Blackboard Jungle.

January 21, 2010

Public Behavior in Private Spaces

new karen 1

By Karen Sternheimer

clip_image002Did you spend a lot of time at malls this holiday season? I did recently, although I didn’t go into very many stores to shop. Malls are great places to go when it’s cold and you want to get out of the house and get some exercise. While visiting my family this holiday season, nearly three feet of snow fell and local malls were just about the only place we could go to take a walk without freezing.

There’s a big difference between taking a walk outside and walking in a mall. Malls tend to be more crowded and walking space can be limited, so we often found ourselves walking in circles around some of the bigger department stores. Free samples in the food court can defeat the whole purpose of walking, too.

clip_image004The most significant difference between walking in a mall and walking outside is that malls are private spaces. Seemingly anyone can enter a mall, walk around and use the restroom if necessary. But unlike a truly public place, management has the right to ask people to leave for a variety of reasons that might seem vague and could be arbitrarily determined.

One upscale shopping center had its list of rules posted by the restroom, which I have posted below. (I decided to remove any identifying information, since as you can see in rule #4 any unauthorized photography is forbidden there).

Some of the “codes of conduct” seem like common sense rules that only the most disruptive of shoppers would violate: vandalism, drag racing, and fighting seem like good things to ban, and they are illegal anyway.

But take a look at some of the others—they might be open to a variety of interpretations. “All guests are to be treated as you would like to be treated….standing, walking or sitting in areas that might cause an inconvenience to others, is not permitted” according to rule #1. Wearing clothes not deemed to be “appropriate attire” violates rule #5. Sitting in your car for too long violates rule #7.

If you have ever been someplace where people violated these expectations, you know it can be uncomfortable when others are rude and disruptive. But my guess is that these rules might be bent for someone who drops a load of money at one of the pricey shops. Someone carrying a dog in their bag violates rule #9, yet I have seen exceptions made for people who appear to be wealthy and thus possibly good customers. As Sally Raskoff blogged about, here in Los Angeles dogs are most common in malls with upscale clientele. I’ve been barked at in dressing rooms on more than one occasion. IMG_1020

Several rules focus specifically on young people. “Minors must not continually congregate in groups larger than four” according to rule #2. Rule #3 follows: “To enforce the rules applicable to minors, we require all patrons on our property to carry appropriate identification with proof of age.” Finally, rule #8 states that, “All persons under the age of 18 are expected to be in school during school hours and may be asked to leave the property.”

Teens in public are routinely seen as potential problems, and yet for many teens the only “public” spaces they can visit are actually privately owned. Sociologist Christine L. Williams observed this while conducting ethnographic research in toy stores. In her book Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality, she notes that poor kids of color were routinely asked to leave stores even if they weren’t causing any trouble.

I spent a lot of time in malls before I earned my driver’s license; in fact, one of the malls I recently walked in was the local hangout for my peers. I had no proof of age until I was 16 (except a birth certificate, which my parents kept in a secure file at home), and by that time was mobile enough that hanging out at the mall didn’t appeal to me anymore. It wouldn’t have been unusual for me to be there during “school hours” either. Sometimes my friends and I went there for lunch, and my senior year I arranged my schedule to have the last period free so I could work in a store at the mall part time.

But since my friends and I contributed to the economic activity of the mall, no one ever asked us to leave, even if our group grew large or we were loud. If we clip_image008didn’t have spending money, our presence might have been considered more troubling. And consider that many retail stores tend to hire white, affluent teens, as 60 Minutes detailed in this story on Abercrombie and Fitch. This means that the mall rules can be applied disproportionately to lower income teens of color, who might have few other places to congregate.

The rule that might have the most important implication is rule #4. “Soliciting, picketing, rallying…distributing literature…soliciting signatures or personal information of any kind…is prohibited without the express written consent of the owner.” Essentially this rule outlaws any political activity in the mall, a rule that is common in shopping areas nationwide.

As historian Lizabeth Cohen points out in A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, after World War II Americans’ gathering spaces became increasingly privatized, leaving fewer places for protests or political activity. Cohen concludes that during the second half of the twentieth century, Americans came to see themselves predominantly as consumers, not citizens. While the Internet has helped create a new space for organizing to some degree, with fewer public gathering places, it becomes more challenging for traditional organizing and creating community awareness of a particular issue.

Thinking of my recent walks in the malls I visited, I admit noisy protests or picket lines would have made me want to leave. And yet Cohen’s point isn’t that people should cause disturbances in malls and shopping areas, but rather that our public spaces have become commercialized--so much so that it might be difficult to think of public places that are truly public anymore. Especially in a snowstorm.

January 18, 2010

Tiger Woods and the Hyper-Sexualization of Black Men

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

The Wanda Sykes Show recently spoofed The Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Sykes and the rest of the Prize Patrol pay women for denying that they have had sex with golfing legend, Tiger Woods with this offer: “(The Tiger Woods Cleaning House Damage Control) is giving away millions to girls who know how to zip it!” When the Prize Patrol tries to award a $10 million check to Kelly O’Brien, and a Black woman answers the door, Sykes says, “Clearly, we have the wrong house!”

With that line, Sykes and her show state what is obvious but not much commented on in the Woods sex scandal: All the women who claim to have had sex with Woods are white.

Tiger Woods has said his self identity is that of “Cablinasian”—a term he created to account for his Thai, African American, Chinese, Native American, and Caucasian racial and ethnic heritage. By describing himself this way, Woods set himself apart from other mixed race Americans who are usually identified as African American—both by themselves and by others in the society. (Click here to read more about racial classification in the U.S.) Regardless of our self-identity, however, others classify us based on their own ideas about race. No matter how Tiger Woods describes himself, most Americans probably think of him as African American.

Given the country’s racial legacy, what role does Woods’ race play in the news coverage of his extramarital affairs? There is no lab in which we can run an experiment to answer this question definitively and all comparisons to other famous people—whether athletes, politicians, or actors—will be have limitations revolving around at least two issues. First, as one of the most famous and most accomplished athletes today, Woods is very unique. Second, a perfect comparison would have to include enough people who are very similar on a number of variables. Without the ability to make such precise comparisons, this public conversation is still a platform from which we can reflect on issues of race that this story raises.

How is race relevant in this case? Elin Nordegren, Tiger Woods’ wife is white and so are all of the women he is alleged to have had affairs with. (Woods admits to infidelity but does not say with whom he has dallied.) How much of the frenzied chasing of this story is related to those two factors, when most see him as African American? And what of the steam coming out of reporters’ ears as they discuss the case? Do they seem even more revved up than usual? For example, Pat Lalama was Guest Host on CNN’s Nancy Grace Show and she made no objections to the following comments by Lou Palumbo, a private investigator

LALAMA: Lou Palumbo, private investigator, former Nassau County Police investigator. You`ve seen a lot of this kind of thing, how does this rank to you, this case?
PALUMBO: As low as you can go, quite frankly. I mean.
LALAMA: Really?
PALUMBO: Yes, he`s somewhat on himself here. It wasn`t an issue that he wasn`t finding comfort or rapport in his home with his wife and he sought comfort with someone else. This guy was a sociopath. I mean, he traveled through continents to do this. And it`s unconscionable and quite frankly his complete lack of regard first and foremost for his children is inexplicable.

And I really don`t think this guy cares, quite frankly, and I think he`s a coward. In fact, what he should do is come out of hiding and just confront this issue and try to make some sense of it with people which we know he cannot do but he needs to confront this issue. He`s just hiding.

Palumbo’s comments and demeanor have been common among television commentators who seem to feel no need to appear journalistic as they discuss the Woods saga. How much of this vitriol is really based on the old stereotypical threat of African American men pursuing white women and defiling them?

That old fear was at the root of many lynchings and other racially motivated crimes against blacks. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy was beaten, shot, and then tied to a 70-pound cotton gin fan before being thrown into a river. His crime? Allegedly whistling at or maybe touching a white woman when he visited Mississippi from Chicago.

According to Jane Dailey, Till’s murder is seen by many historians as being directly tied to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. How so? The decision was seen as opening white women to the sexual advances of black men in school; Walter C. Givhan, an Alabama state senator said the real purpose of the decision was “to open the bedroom doors of our white women to Negro men."

The tone of some of the coverage of the Tiger Woods sex scandal is suggestive of those earlier days. To be sure, Tiger Woods is no Emmett Till. (And I’m no apologist for Woods and his wandering ways!) In some ways, the 34 years between their births might as well be 134 years: Woods is married to a white woman, is wealthy, and famous. He’s famous for being the best in the world in a sport that has been mainly played by rich whites. I am reminded, though, that in other ways 34 years is not very long. For example, although interracial marriages have increased since Till’s time, they are still relatively rare—they make-up about 7% of all U.S. marriages. Coverage of the Tiger Woods affairs tinged with a lens that says that he has ‘gone too far’ –first by marrying a white woman and worse by cheating on her with even more white women—underscores some of that recent history.

Speaking about Woods, celebrity judge Jeanine Pirro exclaimed, “Men are pigs!”, and although tamped down, there was intense coverage of a physician who treated Woods because the doctor was being tied to performance enhancement drugs. With all of the non-stop coverage of this story, I have seen none of the contempt for Woods directed at the ever-growing list of women who agreed to have sex with the married superstar athlete, a subject for another post.

Do you detect a racial subtext in the coverage of this story? How do you imagine the coverage of the story would be the same, or different, if Woods was married to a black woman? Or if he were white? What if the women alleging that he was their paramour were women of color? How does this story reinforce the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized black man?

January 14, 2010

Living in a McDonaldized World

todd_sBy Todd Schoepflin, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Niagara University

[email protected] www.niagara.edu/sociology


I first read George Ritzer’s book The McDonaldization of Society in 1996, my first year of graduate school. I loved the book right away. It described perfectly the world I lived in, and still does. What was true in 1996 for me is even truer today. I am surrounded by fast-food establishments and other businesses that follow the McDonald’s model.

Our culture continues to value efficiency, predictability and quantity. Workers and consumers are controlled more than ever by technology. I am careful not to be hypocritical when it comes to this subject; I definitely take advantage of some conveniences that come with living in a McDonaldized world.

As I write this in Buffalo, New York, it is twenty degrees outside, so you better believe that I occasionally make use of a drive thru in order to get my morning coffee. And once in a blue moon it even comes from McDonald’s. I also go to McDonaldized places when it’s time for an oil change. Although I’d prefer to leave my car with a mechanic for a day, the convenience of stopping at Jiffy Lube or some other specialized auto service business is too easy to pass up. There’s one  place I go for an oil change where you don’t even leave your car! What’s more efficient than staying in your car while you get an oil change in ten minutes? But I try to patronize Mom and Pop businesses as often as possible. I’m always on the lookout for establishments that are creative, unique and interesting. Places where size and speed are not equated with quality.

It’s getting harder to find places that don’t follow the McDonald’s way of doing business where I live. That’s why it’s so special to me to spend time at places Marottosthat aren’t McDonaldized. One of my favorite examples is a restaurant near my house named Marotto’s. I don’t go often, just on special occasions, and my father is always with me when I go because it’s his favorite restaurant. Despite the fact that we aren’t regulars, we get the royal treatment whenever we go. Owner Mark Marotto always stops by our table to chat with us. Not only is he the owner but also the head chef! Aside from making time to visit every table, he brightens everyone’s experience by playing the harmonica. When my family recently dined there for my father’s birthday, he came out of the  kitchen to play “Happy Birthday” on the harmonica.

Such unique treatment brings a huge smile to my face (as you can see from the picture during one of our visits to Marotto’s…I’m the one with the big nose, glasses and oversized grin). If you want to see Mark in action, look at the story that a local news station did about him that’s posted on the restaurant's website. I just love the genuine feel of Mark playing the harmonica to entertain his customers.

Compare this to what happens when you enter a place like Moe’s Southwest Grill, a McDonaldized establishment in which workers shout “Welcome to Moe’s!” in unison when you enter. It seems to me that the workers half-heartedly shout this phrase because they are merely following a corporate script. It doesn’t feel real or authentic. While writing this I looked at their website and I immediately saw a graphic that said “Welcome to Moe’s, where size matters.” This was unsurprising because in a McDonaldized world, bigger is a promise of better.

It’s important to remember that the McDonaldization theory does not only apply to restaurants. Think of Christmas trees as another example. Buying a fake Trees_for_saletree from Home Depot is an example of McDonaldization (especially if you use the technology there to purchase the tree without any help from an employee). A fake tree is efficient because no messy pine needles fall to the floor and there’s no problem getting the box through the front door. But it sure is bland compared to buying a tree from a local family farm. I recognize that not everyone lives near a tree farm, but if you’re within reasonable driving distance of one, I highly recommend the experience.

This year my wife and I took our two-year-old son to a tree farm located forty minutes from our house. When we arrived they gave us a saw to cut down our tree. We walked a few hundred feet and found a beautiful tree. It took me a while to saw through the tree, and I almost gave up, but I persisted and was thrilled when I finally got the job done. A worker helped me get the tree on top of our car, and sort of helped me tie it down.

I say “sort of” because that’s where the adventure began. We drove off and made our way back to the highway, driving 60 miles per hour and hoping the tree was properly fastened. It wasn’t long before two young guys in a car drove past us laughing and pointing at us. Our worst fear was confirmed—the tree was sliding off the top of our car. We pulled off to the side of the road and did our best to reposition the tree and secure it with a bungee cord. As my wife and I worked on the task with cars zooming by us, our son was crying his eyes out. Maybe it was the loud sound of cars flying by or maybe he was scared of seeing his parents climbing around the car, struggling to tie down a tree. Either McDonaldizationway, we finally got the tree where we wanted it and eventually made our way home. We  shared a good laugh about our morning and I suggested we go to the tree farm every other year.

I’m not sure I can handle a day like that every year! But I think that experience embodied the spirit of doing things in a way that aren’t McDonaldized. Sure it’s easier to buy a tree from a store but it’s more fun and unpredictable to cut down your own tree. A common sight this time of year where I live is Christmas trees in a parking lot. You can park, pick out your tree, pay for it and be home in a matter of minutes. So you can even get a real tree in a McDonaldized way. I took a picture of one of these parking lots near my house, and from where I took the picture I also took a shot of a common McDonaldized scene: a Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin-Robbins and Valvoline all situated on a corner lot.

I guess it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In other words, I don’t think one has to totally avoid a McDonaldized way of life. I think it’s about balance. Some encounters with McDonaldized places are inevitable in many of the places people live. My advice is to enjoy those places around you that offer something different. Sameness is comforting but it’s also boring. As the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life.” I think that saying holds true when we spend time in a way that isn’t McDonaldized.

January 11, 2010

Consuming Philanthropy

new sally By Sally Raskoff

There are many motivations for giving one’s time and money. Altruism was once considered the primary rationale for giving. Our current societal context for giving assumes that the giver, whether a business or a person, gets something for their giving, so giving is not entirely selfless.

Pure altruism exists when people give with no benefit to themselves. That type of giving is not common in our society. Instead, people are encouraged to give and get at the same time; volunteering appears on one’s college applications, corporate philanthropy gives tax breaks and publicity.


“Cause marketing” gives us the “Red” campaign of the Gap and Starbucks, events like “Shopping for the Cure” and many other partnerships between charities and corporations. I’ve long been concerned about such pairings as they link consumerism with charitable activities in ways that are impossible to separate.

A recent NPR story mentions the net benefit for society and the assumptions that once people give, they will see the intrinsic value of giving and thus continue even without an extrinsic reward. However, research doesn’t necessarily support that outcome. Are those people sentenced to community service able to see it as a non-punishment? Are students capable of seeing volunteering as a non-requirement?

In a study I co-authored several years ago, we found that many students define volunteering as an activity they no longer have to do once they have satisfied their graduation requirements, rather than realizing that such activity can enrich one’s life and community.

The original intent of mandated volunteering (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is to socialize people into giving to one’s community. However, when one exchanges the volunteering or monetary giving – in obvious and explicit ways – for some commodity or other benefit, the giving becomes a commodity as well.

For sustainable societies, education is not a commodity, schools are not businesses, giving time and money are not a commodity nor are the people that give of their personal time and funds corporate entities. However, we increasingly talk about education as though it is a service to be exchanged like other services in our economy. As a result, schools are pressured to run like businesses, and giving time and money are increasingly part of commodity and consumerist exchanges.

I bristle at those discussions on our campus where education is equated with business, where students are seen as customers, since education is a far bigger enterprise, potentially, than simple business. Education – and giving – are much greater than the sum of their “services.” Society benefits in large ways from their effective functioning. Students who learn how to think create a much more vibrant society than those who don’t learn to think or who those who only learn to take tests. People who volunteer or give see their communities enriched in ways far beyond the time or dollar amounts spent.

imageThat such activities are increasingly tied to commodity exchanges cheapens and demeans not only those activities but also leaves our society much less enriched since those behaviors are not seen as life-long pursuits.

How to explain all this with sociology? I’ve already begun this explanation with a Marxian analysis. Tying giving to consumerism and commodity exchanges enables us to see who profits and how the capitalist form of our economy is involved in the creation of “selfish giving”.

Capitalism, especially as it exhausts its profit sources, co-opts more and more of society’s institutions. This example of linking giving to consumer activity is a clear co-option of democracy by capitalism. Democracy depends on the service of its people to fulfill its ideals – one needs an informed and vigilant people to fully enact a democratic society.

If people’s vigilance in ensuring society functions well is weakened by tying services to consumer activities, people no longer participate in ensuring strong and vibrant communities. Instead, they buy things and are satisfied that their philanthropic duty is done. They give their time because their employer, judge, or school  have told them to and they are satisfied when their requirement is completed. While they may learn that they can feel good by doing good, they are not necessarily likely to do more – or to see how their community and the democracy in which they live depend on such behaviors.

So what can we do about this? Marx’s theory suggests that as capitalist crises continue to increase in frequency and scope, even as more and more institutions are co-opted into the capitalist enterprise, capitalism has indeed exhausted itself and its sources of profit. It follows that the structure of our economy is in dire need of revision. Yet whether we have the will to do so remains to be seen.

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