Social minority issues in perspective

Recent stories that flesh out important topics

The media covers social minorities regularly in the daily churn of news. A lot of that coverage just skims the happenings of the day—a court win, an activist group announcement, what a controversial figure said on his Twitter feed. But sometimes, reporters are allowed the time and the space to examine a social minority issue in depth, or from an unexpected angle. These stories give readers a fuller perspective and allow them to better understand the forces at play in hot-button issues, or to see their neighbors or neighborhood in a more nuanced way.

Here are three stories from the past month or so that take a fresh look at different minority issues. They’re all great examples of how social minorities can be covered with complexity and depth.

Mormon Church Abandons Its Crusade Against Gay Marriage,” Mother Jones
Most people who follow the gay marriage debate know that the Mormon Church, thanks to their influx of money, volunteers, and structural support, played a key role in winning Proposition 8 in 2008, which took away marriage equality from gay and lesbian Californians. But what hasn’t been widely noted in the media is that, after the Prop 8 backlash that saw people marching against the Mormon Church in major cities across the country, the church stepped way back. In fact, their influence in the 2012 election was almost non-existent, which may be part of why all four states with gay marriage on the ballot in November saw a win for equality.

Stephanie Mencimer’s insightful piece in Mother Jones asks why the Church became so hands off. It wasn’t just the public backlash, she says, but a combination of sensitivity to Mitt Romney’s presidential bid and an acknowledgement that the Church’s involvement with Prop 8 cracked open deep rifts among its membership. In more liberal publications, the Mormon Church can often be portrayed as an intimidating monolith intent on having its own way, but Mencimer explores the ways that the Church is trying to make its gay members and neighbors feel more welcome. Though “not everything has changed,” Mencimer writes, and the Church still filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting Prop 8 when justices heard the issue in March, the brief seemed “to have bent over backward to express how much they like gays, and to frame the issue in terms of states’ rights, as opposed to morality.”

New Suburban Dream Born of Asia and Southern California,” The New York Times
The immigration debate in Congress—and in the media—has focused on Latinos, because most immigrants who are in the country illegally come from Mexico. But they aren’t the whole story. Jennifer Medina of The New York Times notes that in California, “more than twice as many immigrants … now come from Asia than from Latin America.” Medina looks at the ways in which these immigrants are transforming the Golden State, from store signs in Mandarin to an increased, and increasingly visible, sense of Asian ethnic pride. There have been controversies, of course—there’s a history of tension around English-only ordinances and fear that Chinese immigrants are taking over the region—but there are also popular Taiwanese night markets and families without Asian ethnicity who are clamoring to take Mandarin classes.

The Troubling Viral Trend of the ‘Hilarious’ Black Neighbor,” Slate
After three Cleveland women were rescued from the house where they have been held for a decade, one man seemed to get most of the press: Charles Ramsey, who helped kick the door in and called 911. Ramsey’s 911 call and media interviews were charming, enthusiastic and down-to-earth. But as Aisha Harris writes in Slate’s culture blog, Browbeat,

Ramsey’s heroism is quickly being overshadowed by the public’s desire to laugh at and autotune his story, and that’s a shame. Ramsey has become the latest in a fairly recent trend of ‘hilarious’ black neighbors, unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a ‘colorful’ style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class.

Harris is mostly talking about Internet mockery, but the snarky tone has filtered into the mainstream press as well. An example of what she’s talking about is this demeaning piece in the New York Daily News about a t-shirt featuring Ramsey, which begins, “Now you, too, can look good while eating your Big Mac.”

Harris traces this trend of laughing at working-class African Americans from the TV news videos that circulated of Antoine Dodson, who saved his sister from an intruder, to Sweet Brown, who escaped from a fire. She writes, “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.” And something more to do with “the most basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the ‘ghetto.’” Harris shows us what great analysis can do—she takes apart a cultural trend and explains why it’s harmful to a minority community. She points out that we shouldn’t make Ramsey into a joke or an oddity because of his class and color, good advice for all of us who are working as journalists.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.