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I feel heartbroken by the news that George Zimmerman walks a free, “innocent” man after murdering Trayvon Martin. It is difficult to digest that the state of Florida, among other states, has granted license (which mostly benefits whites who kill Blacks) to “stand your ground” (i.e., murder). So, while there is no doubt Zimmerman killed Martin, he was found not guilty within the content of these broad self-defense laws. Indirectly, Florida and these other states have legalized the practice of hunting and killing of Black Americans.
Post-racism my ass!
Parents And Racial Socialization
In addition to the collective outrage and sadness that followed the not-guilty verdict, I noticed other, unexpected responses. One, in particular, caught me by surprise, but probably should have been expected. Because Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when George Zimmerman killed him, many Black parents (especially mothers) have expressed great concern for protecting their children. Some have asked specifically how they can effectively prepare their children to navigate a world where they could be murdered for carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea — that is, if they are Black.
Throughout US history, Black parents, like all parents of color, have socialized their children in a way that is explicitly racialized. This aspect of Black parenting, sometimes referred to as racial socialization, entails practices of preparing one’s children for the current realities of racism and race relations and, for some, instilling a strong sense of racial pride. So, the concerns raised by Black parents following the murder of Trayvon Martin and, again, following the conclusion of George Zimmerman’s trial, are not new.
But, the messages transmitted by Black parents to their children does change over time, reflecting the current racial climate. In their 2006 Social Psychology Quarterly article, “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time,” sociologists Tony Brown and Chase L. Lesane-Brown assessed the content of Black parents’ racialized socialization practices over time: specifically pre-Brown v. Board of Education (before 1957; Blacks born between 1879-1940), Civil Rights protest (1957-1968; those born in 1941-1955), and post-protest (1969-1980; those born 1956-1963). The earliest cohort — those coming of age before Brown — were more likely to hear messages about deference to or fear of whites, or about color-blindness. Those coming of age after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement were more likely to hear messages of racial group pride, individual pride, or no race-specific messages at all.
Racial Socialization, 1980 To Today
What about the racial socialization of those born from 1964 to today (Blacks under the age of 50)? Black Americans who came of age in the 1980s were socialized during the time of conservative President Ronald Reagan, The Cosby Show, and heightened poverty. Those who came of age in the ’90s witnessed the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (following the hearings of his sexual harassment against Anita Hill), the brutal beating of Rodney King by LA police, and the Million Man March. My cohort — those coming of age between 2000-2010 — has seen the election of Barack Obama (and other “Firsts” like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), the ugly (mis)handling of evacuation before and relief after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the end of busing and subsequent resegregation of schools, and the beginnings of successful attempts to undermine and dismantle Affirmative Action policies.
What about the current racial climate — Black youth who are coming of age during the present decade (2010-)? It appears to be an intensification of the racial/racist schizophrenia of the prior decade. While President Barack Obama was reelected, there were heightened efforts to suppress Blacks’ vote. Recently, declaring racism dead or nearly dead, the Supreme Court gutted much of the Voting Rights Act. Affirmative Action programs continue to be challenged and scaled back. Blacks are disproportionately represented in prison and throughout the criminal justice system. While hearing claims that America has reached a post-racial era, the vast majority of Black Americans report facing interpersonal discrimination (Kessler et al. 1999); this is complemented by legal law enforcement practices that unfairly target people of color (including Stand Your Ground laws) and other forms of institutional racism.
Racial Socialization, Discrimination, and Crime
But, is instilling a strong sense of racial pride and preparing one’s children for racial bias effective? Yep. Prior research has suggested that the damaging effects of racial discrimination, particularly to one’s health and well-being, are buffered by a strong, positive racial identity (Paradies 2006; Pascoe and Richman 2009). This is true for racial socialization broadly, but also supportive parenting in general (Simmons et al. 2006).
Interestingly, racial socialization also partially mediates (or explains) the relationship between racial discrimination and criminal or delinquent behavior (Burt et al. 2012; Caldwell et al. 2004; Martin et al. 2010). Unfortunately, as a result of the anger, depression, hostile view of interpersonal relationships, and disengagement from conventional norms that can follow exposure to discrimination, victims of racial discrimination may be more likely to engage in these kinds of violent or illegal activities. But, Black parents’ successful efforts to instill a strong sense of racial pride and prepare their kids for racial bias can interrupt this chain of events.
For, what unfolds is much worse. With racial disparities in (hostile) interaction with the police, in arrest, in the courts, and in sentencing, the risk of imprisonment is multiplied. And, once release from prisons (at least for felonies), one’s livelihood and well-being are further jeopardized by the simultaneous stigmatized statuses of “ex-con” and Black. In certain states, that comes with the loss of key aspects of citizenship, namely the right to vote (another right that is already threatened by racial discrimination).
The sheer vastness of racism’s reach are difficult to comprehend. From birth to death, one’s life is persistently shaped and constrained by racism; even the racist treatment one faces within one institution (e.g., education) can influence such treatment in one’s navigation through other institutions (e.g., criminal justice, politics).
And effective racialized socialization can minimize some of this? That is an unfair, heavy burden to place on the shoulders of parents of color. And the era of supposed post-racism has made the job of Black parents even more complicated. How do you explain to your 12 year old that he could be President, a doctor, a teacher, or an engineer by age 40… or living in poverty, HIV-positive, in jail, or dead by age 25? How do prepare your child for racist violence, like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, alongside the “progress” that has transpired in the past 60 years?
And, what could Trayvon Martin’s parents — Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton — have done to prevent the tragic end of their son’s life at the young age of 17? Told him to lay off of junk food? Don’t walk alone at night? Dress like characters on the uber white show, Friends? Or, stop being Black? Any of these suggestions are victim-blaming; and, unfortunately, parts of Zimmerman’s trial seem to put Martin on trial (for his own murder).
When racial socialization is not enough, and the law actually gives bigots a license to hunt innocent Black teenagers, what protection remains for people of color in America?
It is hard to hope for any answer other than, “nothing.”
Bowleg, Lisa, Gary J. Burkholder, Jenne S. Massie, Rahab Wahome, Michelle Teti, David J. Malebranche, and Jeanne M. Tschann. Forthcoming. “Racial Discrimination, Social Support, and Sexual HIV Risk among Black Heterosexual Men.” AIDS Behavior.
Brown, Tony N., and Chase L. Lesane-Brown. 2006. “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time.” Social Psychology Quarterly 69: 201-13.
Burt, Callie Harbin, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederic X. Gibbons. 2012. “Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-Sociological Model of Risk and Resilience.” American Sociological Review 77: 648-77.
Caldwell, Cleopatra Howard, Laura P. Kohn-Wood, Karen H. Schmeelk-Cone, Tabbye M. Chavous, and Marc A. Zimmerman. (2004). “Racial Discrimination and Racial Identity as Risk or Protective Factors for Violence Behaviors in African American Young Adults.” American Journal of Community Psychology 33: 91-105.
Kessler, Ronald C., Kristin D. Mickelson, and David R. Williams. 1999. “The Prevalence, Distribution, and Mental Health Correlates of Perceived Discrimination in the United States.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 40: 208-30.
Martin, Monica J., Bill McCarthy, Rand D. Conger, Frederick X. Gibbons, Ronald L. Simons, Carolyn E. Cutrona, and Gene H. Brody. 2010. “The Enduring Significance of Racism: Discrimination and Delinquency Among Black American Youth.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 21: 662-76.
Paradies, Yin. 2006. “A Systematic Review of Empirical Research on Self-Reported Racism and Health.” International Journal of Epidemiology 35: 888-901.
Pascoe, Elizabeth A., and Laura Smart Richman. 2009. “Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Psychological Bulletin 135: 531-54.
Roberts, Megan E., Frederick X. Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, Chin-Yuan Weng, Velma M. Murry, Leslie G. Simons, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederick O. Lorenz. 2012. “From Racial Discrimination to Risky Sex: Prospective Relations Involving Peers and Parents.” Developmental Psychology 48: 89-102.
Simons, Ronald L., Leslie Gordon Simons, Callie Harbin Burt, Holli Drummund, Eric Stewart, Gene H. Brody, Frederick X. Gibbons, and Carolyn Cutrona. 2006. “Supportive Parenting Moderates the Effect of Discrimination upon Anger, Hostile View of Relationships, and Violence among African American Boys.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 47: 373-89.
In 2008, the argument that race has declined in importance became the crystallized “post-racial” thesis upon the election of President Barack Obama. By his re-election in 2012, some had offered clarification that race still exists, but it is racism that has disappeared – the “post-racism” thesis. There it sits, almost as a sense of relief — “whew, now we can stop tip-toeing around people of color, and supporting these race-related causes like Affirmative Action.”
On day 2 of George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the supposed reality of post-racism contrasts with that of the hyperrelevance of race and racism. A young Black man was killed because his race made him a suspect.
Today, Blackness is still a crime, and whites are charged with the task of policing Black people. The harshness of law enforcement and the criminal justice system is magnified for Blacks, from the use of excessive force to longer sentences to denial of justice all together. Even those who are not police officers, judges, and lawyers serve to police Blacks; the days of lynching Black women and men has merely evolved into a calmer form of extralegal vigilance.
My blood boiled as I watched this video. I posted it in various places on Facebook, expecting similar outrage. The video was widely shared, but often introduced with concerned, but surprisingly calm notes: “watch this”; “wow”; “this is messed up.” Those were comments mostly comments from white people.
But, even some Black folks articulated concern, but little surprise. In fact, a few people seemed to think that it was problematic that I was surprised, and that they are superior in some way for being unmoved. The unsympathetic response of “why are you surprised?” stung, playing on my fear that I am “not Black enough” or “too white” to fully comprehend the severity of contemporary racism. I suppose the anonymity of the internet is a dual-edged sword, where hostility is widely expressed and, absent of an in-person connection, there is little expression of empathy and solidarity.
Racism Is Worse Than We Realize
As I further processed my reactions to this video, I realized that my surprise and anger are warranted. Yes, in the self-confident sense where I do not need to justify my feelings, or shape or suppress them according to others’ opinions. But, also because the sheer pervasiveness and severity of racism cannot be fully comprehended by one person. Even as a researcher, I am unable to see every instance, manifestation, and consequence of racism in every corner of the world.
Like this video, racism that hides behind seemingly race-neutral interactions, laws, and practices is harder to see, and near impossible to prove exists. Today, we are dealing with consciously suppressed and unconscious racial prejudice — both which shape behaviors. Few racists openly, proudly identify themselves as racists, and most racists do not even know that they are racist.
Racial discrimination, too, is harder to identify, particularly absent of outwardly expressed racial bias. It is no longer limited to exclusion at the entry point or first contact. The “whites only” sign has to be implied since it cannot be hung from the front door. We may be hired, but then harassed on the job or denied opportunities to advance. We may receive a loan, but are offered one that is economically risky.
On the ground, we cannot see other interactions to “accurately” assess whether we have been discriminated against. (This speaks to the importance of research to look at the broader patterns!) Like the racial profiling video above, Black people may suspect unfair or differential treatment driven by racial prejudice, but rarely can we compare the same situation experienced by a white person. Even in some of the recent audit studies that demonstrate racial discrimination in the labor force, some of the participants were unaware of the discriminatory treatment they faced until they compared notes with others and the researchers.
In reality, racism and the pervasiveness of racial discrimination are likely far worse than we can imagine. So, I stand by my surprise because it is a reasonable reaction to such harsh reminders of the everyday consequences of racism. But, also because I much prefer to hope for something better than resign myself to accept the world as it is.