Do all those mixed-race couples on TV count for anything?

Like I’ve discussed a few times on this blog (like here and here), the past couple years have not been America’s proudest in terms of race relations. Regardless of whether you feel the nation’s actual situation has worsened, or rather that greater transparency and awareness are revealing more clearly how bad that situation has always been, one thing is for sure; Americans are feeling a greater level of anxiety around race than they did just a few years ago. A Gallup poll recently found that 35% of respondents worry “a great deal” about race relations in the country, the most since the organization started asking the question 15 years ago.

The great irony here is that even as Americans’ collective anxiety over race has risen, our society’s most vital institution — the nuclear family — is more racially integrated than ever before. A generation ago, about one-in-a hundred babies born in America could be considered multiracial; that number is now about one-in-ten. Not surprisingly, our attitudes about interracial marriage have dramatically changed as well. Back in 1958 just 4% of Americans said they approved of black-white marriage. Today that number is 87%.

But never mind all that for a moment. Let’s talk about something that really matters: TV commercials. Because the way I see it, the number of interracial romances, families and friendships you see on TV says a lot about American attitudes towards race.

I’m not aware of any quantifiable data on this (I’m either too lazy or too unskilled to find it, if it exists), but it seems to me there’s been an explosion of racial diversity in the past few years in commercials as well as print and electronic advertising. A couple years back General Mills sparked conversation with a TV spot for Cheerios that featured a white mom, a black dad, and their adorable biracial kid, a decision which somehow stirred controversy and nearly made racist internet trolls’ heads explode. But since then, there’s been an unusual number of mixed race couples and families in mainstream advertising which have seamlessly blended in to the landscape. Both American Airlines and Amazon, I noticed, recently had promotional images on their websites of black-and-white couples (in the case of the latter, with their biracial kids). Ford ran a commercial for its Escape SUV featuring a pretty black girl with a beaming smile camping with her white boyfriend, accompanied by Rachel Patten’s “This is My Fight Song” in the background. Another ad by JBL features young, attractive joggers, one white and the other black, exchanging subtly flirtatious glances over the subject of tangled headphone wires. For a while USA Today has run a TV commercial of a handsome Indian-looking guy and nerdy-but-cute blonde chatting casually on a park bench. Keep in mind these are just the ads I’ve actually seen and can remember off hand. Needless to say there are many more. None of them alone is earthshaking, but together they say something significant, I would say.

mixed_race_ads_collage

Screenshots from the websites of American Airlines (above) and Amazon (below).

There are subtle changes happening in movies as well that mirror these trends, even at a time when the Oscars has been notoriously criticized for a lack of ethnic diversity in its nominees. Take for example the career arc of Will Smith, who for years has been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Even though he is universally recognized as one of the industry’s hottest sex symbols, it’s telling that for the bulk of Will Smith’s career his films barely acknowledged his sexuality, and even when they did, he was only allowed on-camera romances with non-white actresses. It took until 2015’s otherwise forgettable Focus for him to kiss a white woman in a movie. Don’t get too wrapped up in the travesty of an actor as handsome and charming as Will Smith being needlessly bottled up for all those years. Instead, let us acknowledge the fact that last year, Warner Brothers finally saw it as financially lucrative to expose American moviegoers to two hours of him in love with a smoking hot Margo Robbie.

To be clear, movies or advertising companies or whoever else who put interracial couples front-and-center are not doing so out of some sense of civic duty or expression of high-minded ideals. This is about money. But making money in this case is about recognizing and responding to consumer tastes, and the fact that advertisers are so much more likely to feature mixed-race couples and families than they used to be is undoubtedly the result of painstaking research and careful insight suggesting this strategy now works with the broad American public. Do not for a second think this is an accident; multiple companies are clearly concluding that consumers will react positively to different races of people meshed together in the same ad, movie, or whatever.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be skeptical of this trend’s importance and its actual impact on people’s lives. Even I find it curious that pop culture now seems to have a fascination with black women coupled with white men. (Indeed, that’s the set up for many of the TV spots mentioned above.) In that sense, one could be tempted to brush the trend off as just a shallow fad. And even when companies seek to make a statement of multiculturalism in their ads, sometimes they miss the mark badly and their efforts have exactly the opposite effect, as was the case just a few weeks ago when The Gap released an ad showing a white child model awkwardly resting her elbow on her black counterpart.

The heavier and more serious criticism, of course, is that even as our pop culture changes, real life racism, from criminal justice to bank lending, has its roots planted deep in this country’s social soil. We do not, in fact, live in a so-called “post-racial” America. Nonetheless, even as it’s important to be real about our nation’s shortcomings when it comes to race, I think it’s far too easy to be negative and dismissive about how the country is changing, both in terms of demographics and attitudes.

Abdu’l-Baha said of America’s race problem nearly a century ago that “marriage between these two races will wholly destroy and eradicate the root of enmity” between blacks and whites. That surely isn’t an overnight solution, nor is it a solution all on its own. But reflect on the tenfold increase in the proportion of multiracial kids being born in America, and imagine the effect it’s sure to exert on how we recognize and value eachother over the next one, two, or three generations. The increasing regularity and social acceptance of mixed-race couples and families isn’t just an ancillary story in America’s broader racial narrative. This is about drowning racism in the purest form of human love: that shared between man, woman, and child.

Even as we recognize where we continue to fail as a country, let’s acknowledge the positive. Who we date, marry, and have children with is changing rapidly and for the better. And increasingly, our pop culture suggests our attitudes are changing as well.

Abdu’l-Baha speaking of Jesus Christ in 1912


I’m too late to share this for the Easter holiday, but I figured it was still worth it. I came across this beautiful passage recently reading the book The Promulgation of Universal Peace, a collection of talks given by Abdu’l-Baha a little more than a century ago.

During Abdu’l-Baha’s journey through Europe and North America in the early 20th century, the life and teachings of Jesus Christ were a common topic. That may seem strange given that the whole point of Abdu’l-Baha’s trip was to introduce Westerners to a new faith and a new spiritual message. But seen in the context of the Baha’i Faith’s core teaching — that all religions are in fact reflections of a single spiritual truth, and all human beings are members of a single family — the fact that Abdu’l-Baha tended to talk in terms familiar to a Western audience makes a great deal of sense.

In any case, here is Abdu’l-Baha speaking to a small group of listeners in Brooklyn in 1912. (With some abridging by me*.)

The divine Prophets came to establish the unity of the Kingdom in human hearts. All of them proclaimed the glad tidings of the divine bestowals to the world of mankind. All brought the same message of divine love to the world. Jesus Christ gave His life upon the cross for the unity of mankind. Those who believed in Him likewise sacrificed life, honor, possessions, family, everything, that this human world might be released from the hell of discord, enmity and strife. His foundation was the oneness of humanity. Only a few were attracted to Him. They were not the kings and rulers of His time. They were not rich and important people… But their hearts were pure and attracted by the fires of the Divine Spirit manifested in Christ. With this small army Christ conquered the world of the East and the West. Kings and nations rose against Him. Philosophers and the greatest men of learning assailed and blasphemed His Cause. All were defeated and overcome, their tongues silenced, their lamps extinguished, their hatred quenched; no trace of them now remains. They have become as nonexistent, while His Kingdom is triumphant and eternal.

The brilliant star of His Cause has ascended to the zenith, while night has enveloped and eclipsed His enemies. His name, beloved and adored by a few disciples, now commands the reverence of kings and nations of the world. His power is eternal; His sovereignty will continue forever, while those who opposed Him are sleeping in the dust, their very names unknown, forgotten. The little army of disciples has become a mighty cohort of millions. The Heavenly Host, the Supreme Concourse are His legions; the Word of God is His sword; the power of God is His victory.

Jesus Christ knew this would come to pass and was content to suffer. His abasement was His glorification; His crown of thorns, a heavenly diadem. When they pressed it upon His blessed head and spat in His beautiful face, they laid the foundation of His everlasting Kingdom. He still reigns, while they and their names have become lost and unknown. He is eternal and glorious; they are nonexistent. They sought to destroy Him, but they destroyed themselves and increased the intensity of His flame by the winds of their opposition.

Through His death and teachings we have entered into His Kingdom. His essential teaching was the unity of mankind and the attainment of supreme human virtues through love. He came to establish the Kingdom of peace and everlasting life. Can you find in His words any justification for discord and enmity? The purpose of His life and the glory of His death were to set mankind free from the sins of strife, war and bloodshed…

…To be a real Christian is to be a servant in His Cause and Kingdom, to go forth under His banner of peace and love toward all mankind, to be self-sacrificing and obedient, to become quickened by the breaths of the Holy Spirit, to be mirrors reflecting the radiance of the divinity of Christ, to be fruitful trees in the garden of His planting, to refresh the world by the water of life of His teachings—in all things to be like Him and filled with the spirit of His love.

————

*For the full passage, see here.

Note: In the process of writing this I learned that this particular speech was given the day after Abdu’l-Baha arrived by boat to America from Europe. A historical chronicle of this particular day in his journey is here.

Marriage, inequality, and the social partitioning of America

couple_pouring_champagne

At my first job out of college, one of my coworkers told an unforgettable anecdote about a research project he once worked on as a student. At the time he was helping an economist study marriage patterns across the US, and they needed to understand how marriage laws differed by state. So my coworker went to the library, approached the librarian, and had the following exchange:

Research assistant: “Hi. I need to find out the minimum legal age of marriage in each US state. Can you help me?”

Librarian: [Long pause, stares back suspiciously.] “She’s too young for you.”

I bring this up because a) I find this story hilarious, and b) it illustrates that economists have long been curious about how marriage patterns impact economic outcomes. A NY Times blog post from a while back summarized some of the recent research on this, specifically with a focus on income inequality. The way we commonly choose a marriage partner, it turns out, could be playing a significant role in America’s growing income divide.

From the article:

These days, an investment banker may marry another investment banker rather than a high school sweetheart, or a lawyer will marry another lawyer, or a prestigious client, rather than a secretary. Whether measured in terms of income or education, there are more so-called power couples today than in the past, one manifestation of a phenomenon known as assortative mating, or more generally the pairing of like with like…

Money and talent become clustered in high-powered, two-earner families determined to do everything possible to advance the interests of their children…

The numbers show that assortative mating really matters. One study indicated that combined family decisions on assortative mating, divorce and female labor supply accounted for about one-third of the increase in income inequality from 1960 to 2005.

This was a shock to me when I read it. Income inequality in the United States is at its worst in nearly a century. Most people seem aware of this, but how we get married is rarely one of the reasons cited for the trend. Instead, it’s the usual mix of globalization, technology, and union decline that most use to explain the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. On occasion, smart economists highlight deliberate government actions over the past few decades, like cutting taxes on investment income or relaxing bank regulations, for the explosion of incomes at the top. But social dynamics aren’t usually part of the discussion.

Nonetheless, the finding that marriage can have such significant implications for inequality makes a great deal of sense to me personally. Back when my wife and I were new parents living in a mostly middle class Connecticut city, we had many late night, anxious conversations about the mediocre schools in our town on the one hand and the area’s stratospheric cost of private education on the other. Southern Connecticut, it turns out, is like a souped-up microcosm of America in that regard; public institutions are under fiscal pressure just like everywhere else, relegating the kids of blue collar native-born Americans and first generation immigrants to middling schools, while the area’s bankers, executives and hedge fund managers drive up the cost of living, from houses to school tuition to haircuts. As kids clump together in socially and economically-segregated schools, they’re more likely to interact with and marry those just as privileged as they are, deepening the inequality gap over generations.

What’s the solution to this vicious cycle? First, public policy can make a huge difference by improving the quality of public schools, such that rich, talented parents actually want to send their kids there, and that those kids might mix socially with their less privileged peers. As I understand it, this was a key ingredient in the post-WWII economy, one characterized by stable growth and low inequality; good public education during that time not only produced talent and raised the economy’s productivity, but it also helped maintain a flat society.

But as in many cases, public policy can’t do the job on its own. Solving a social problem as weighty and challenging as this one requires individuals and families to change how they live and interact with others. As I wrote recently on the subject of race, it’s not good enough to have character and integrity in a vacuum. If you want the issue of racism in America to improve, we will have to seek out friends, coworkers, and family members of different races, and consciously include them in our personal lives.

So it is when it comes to class and social status. Given that these days we so commonly live in sequestered little communities where our neighbors have similar incomes and similar education levels, if we actually care about the societal implications of runaway social and economic segregation in America, we can’t just sit there and wait for a solution to descend from heaven. To get out of our comfort zones and to “forcibly agitate” our lives, in the language of that aforementioned blog post, might be the only way to break the cycle.

This takes a radical change in how we live, but on an even more basic level, a major shift in how we view other human beings. Abdul-Baha, for one, asks no less of us than this:

See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness. And in this new and wondrous age, the Holy Writings say that we must be at one with every people… they are not strangers, but in the family; not aliens, but friends, and to be treated as such.

That’s not easy, of course. But what’s the alternative? The problem of growing inequality and the deepening stratification of society won’t fix itself. Politicians and bureaucrats can’t be absolved of responsibility. Then again, neither can we.

In search of the new mythology


I recently started reading a book of transcribed interviews with Joseph Campbell, the famous philosopher and mythologist. I found some of his ideas so fascinating — and in some cases so in tune with how Baha’is think about religious truth — that I felt the need to write a blog post just to share them here. I hope those reading this find Campbell’s words as interesting as I do.  Continue reading

Personal reflections on getting fat as a dad

dad_and_son_on_beach

After my wife and I had our first kid a few years ago, I joked that becoming a father was a great way to get out of shape. There are two main reasons for this: 1) most of your free time is gone, so it’s much harder to get to the gym or wherever else you normally get exercise; and 2) you’re getting a lot less sleep at night, which means that you’re more likely to eat like a pig during the day.

I’m not exactly tipping the scales these days, but as I get deeper and deeper into my 30s, staying in shape is becoming noticeably harder. In terms of diet, I probably eat better now than I ever have. I’m far from perfect, but I’m down to about one sugary drink per week, I hardly ever have anything with white flour, and I try not to snack after dinner. And yet, the dress pants that I had the dry cleaner take out for me just a few months ago are once again feeling snug around the waist.

Of course, there’s another reason besides less exercise and less sleep that explains why men struggle to stay in shape as they get older: declining testosterone. Continue reading

The top five Fruit Tree Blog posts of 2015

Thank you to all the readers and supporters of Fruit Tree Blog as we close out another year.

In case you missed them (or just feel like reading them again), here are the top five blog posts of 2015:

1) The dirty secret behind Europe’s migrant crisis 

Aging and shrinking populations in much of the developed world have a simple solution: young, able-bodied workers from developing countries.

2) This nation is built on trust and self-serve fountain beverages

Recognizing the importance of trust and honesty in keeping the wheels of our economy churning.

3) Let the mystery be

A Leftovers junkie learns to accept mystery when it comes to life’s great questions.

4) America has a race problem. What am I going to do about it?

What we can do as individuals to help heal the disease of racism.

5) Why I’m so pumped about Andy Grammer

Celebrating the young Baha’i musician’s success in an era of artistic cynicism.

Here’s to 2016. Much love and Happy New Year to all.

-“Ed”

Seriously? Yes, of course Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

I recently became acquainted with the story of Larycia Hawkins, a professor at a Evangelical Protestant college here in the U.S. who was suspended for publicly asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. What I found particularly remarkable about this story wasn’t what it revealed about the current state of free speech on college campuses, currently a red-hot subject of debate. What was more striking was that, apparently, many people somehow believe that Christians and Muslims worship different gods.

Here’s how one particular article about Hawkins kicked off:

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? It’s a question that has bedeviled theologians and everyday believers for centuries.

I almost lost my souvlaki sandwich reading this sentence. Have theologians really been debating this for centuries? If so, then shame on them for such a massive waste of time. Continue reading

Let the mystery be

hubble-new-monkey-head-nebula-1600My wife and I have really gotten into HBO’s The Leftovers, now its second season. The Leftovers is about how people from one particular town deal with the sudden, seemingly random disappearance of millions of people from around the globe into thin air. It’s one giant allegory, tied together with fantastic acting and compelling characters.

This season the producers have picked an interesting choice of music to accompany the opening credits. It’s a song called “Let the mystery be” by Iris Dement, whom I’d never heard of until recently. (Give it a listen here.) The song is about accepting mystery in life, especially when it comes to life after death. As the opening goes:

Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
Everybody is a worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

The song’s tone is light and folksy, but this clearly means something important to the artist. As it turns out, Iris Dement was raised in an ultra-religious Pentecostal family in Arkansas, but lost her faith in the church as a teenager. Continue reading

Is the world getting worse?

holding-earth-1-1414853Frequent readers of this blog know a big chunk of time here is spent discussing the world’s great problems, as well as the moral and spiritual changes we need to make to meet those problems head on. Oftentimes this exercise gets to be a downer, mostly because it serves as a reminder of just how daunting those problems truly are.

What’s particularly difficult is to get a sense of whether or not things are getting better or getting worse. I found some new perspective on this recently in an unexpected place, when, while sorting through a box of old books, I found the comic book V For Vendetta and opened it up to its preface:

My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore. Goodnight England.

That was the author, Alan Moore, writing in 1988. In retrospect the level of hyperbole is almost laughable. But that’s only because it’s hard to look back nearly 30 years and try and understand the things people back then were preoccupied with, even though they were legitimate. Back in the 80s people barely understood how HIV worked — Eddie Murphy’s standup routine famously joked about a lonely housewife contracting AIDS by kissing a gay friend on the cheek — and imagined a world epidemic of potentially bubonic plague-like proportions. The Berlin Wall was still a thing, and though the US and USSR were in a process of detente, people still contemplated the possibility of mass extinction from nuclear war. Here in the US, crack cocaine was exploding, as was violent crime in US cities; New York had more than five times as many murders in 1988 than it had last year.

I bring all this up only to make the point that every generation finds it far too easy to say that the world is hopeless and getting worse. In many ways, in fact, things are getting better. Continue reading