This book situates news and popular magazines' coverage of Asian Americans and Mormons within minority discourse, explains the discourses' problematic nature, and points out how the two discourses shape power relations between majorities and minorities in American society. Preface by Kenneth Starck No questions ignite debate in the United States more than those pertaining to differences in religion and ethnicity: Is religion an important consideration in how people regard one another? How significant is ethnicity in making one's way in America? In what ways do religion and ethnicity figure in how a person or group of persons fit into American society? How do media depict for us - that is, those of us on the outside - those who adhere to a different religion or those from a different racial or ethnic background? These are large questions and, as with large questions, probably unanswerable in any definitive way. But the questions are worthy of attention. How we think about them and on what basis helps determine the future of the country. Events of 9-11 and afterwards only intensify interest. Fortunately for us, Dr.
Chiung Hwang Chen does not shirk the responsibility of a scholar to tackle tough issues. Her concern is with how media construct our images of minorities in this country. In terms of media, she looks at magazines. In terms of minorities, she focuses on Mormons and Asian Americans. Magazines, as a representative of media, make sense. But why Mormons and Asian Americans? Probably because she's a member of both minority groups. Her vantage point infuses her work in a way that lends plausibility and credibility to the contribution that she has made in advancing our understanding of minority groups in the United States. This book operates at several levels. Indirectly and most fundamentally, the book confronts the question of what is it to be an American. Or, to put it more precisely: What is it to be "Americanized?" In a way the question envelops the whole of the history of the United States. For what is the composition of this nation if not a rainbow of human colors and a kaleidoscope of hopes and dreams? At another level, the book addresses key issues of assimilation and enculturation. How do assimilation and enculturation occur? Or, do they?
Assuming they do, is there a middle ground for people - yielding to assimilation yet maintaining group identity? Not a melting pot per se. But more of a tossed salad imagery, as some maintain, or, as others of a gustatory bent argue, a nation given to cross-cultural stir fry - different cultures influencing and being influenced by other cultures. This change in our thinking about assimilation portends a change in the way we perceive of assimilation. Though writing mainly about immigration and such contemporary phenomena as globalization and identity politics, Jacoby argues in favor of a new definition of assimilation that simultaneously embraces diversity and unity (Tamar Jacoby, ed., Reinventing the Melting Pot, 2004). Dr. Chen's examination of the experiences of Mormons and Asians would suggest that this re-definition has been taking place for sometime. At yet another and arguably more controversial level, Dr. Chen's book deals with the every-day concerns of any group that exists apart from the mainstream.
How easily it is for us to associate Mormonism with polygamy - or the construction of a welfare system during the Great Depression that continues to be the envy of people everywhere. It is just as easy to think of Asians as representing the yellow peril - or academic and professional models of what we might like our own children to aspire to. Discrimination, prejudice, stereotype - how do these attitudes and behaviors come about? Do mass media play a role in their creation and perpetuation? Dr. Chen's work deals with all of these issues by examining the misfortunes and, ultimately, fortunes of two important minority groups in the United States. How these groups are portrayed in popular news magazines over the span of nearly six decades forms the basis of the study. In both cases, members of the minority groups, often vilified, not only overcome numerous obstacles to become successful in the larger social arena but to emerge as exemplars of comportment, role models for other groups. Hence, the term "model minorities," a complex and, as evident in Dr. Chen's discussion, a much misunderstood label.
From an academic standpoint, the book will interest scholars from several disciplines, notably sociology and communication. Sociologists of immigration and assimilation will find fresh insights on how people different most others in religion and ethnicity cope with their environment. When and how perceptions of minority groups change over time have long been the subject of scholarly inquiry, and Dr. Chen contributes to this debate. Those interested in mass media, both as an academic enterprise as well as the production of content, will find much in this book to test their theories and practices. The book challenges the press to ask itself questions about the way it covers minorities, from the narrative or story-telling approach to the overall impact of culture on the practice of journalism. It shows how news and popular media, while not conspiratorial, unintentionally support interests in power. It echoes Lippmann's words written nearly a century ago: "For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see" (Public Opinion, 1922, pp. 54-55). Dr. Chen's method of inquiry itself will spark debate.
Employing critical discourse analysis, her concern is with meaning in a broad sense - culturally, historically, socially and interpretatively. She certainly is not objective, that is, producing results that are verifiable and reproducible. But she does not profess to be objective. She wants to challenge and question deeply embedded theories and practices. "Consciousness raising," in her words. In this and in other ways she succeeds admirably.