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Fear of Violence at the Intersections of Sexuality, Gender, and Race and Ethnicity

A great deal of victimization research has investigated factors that explain differences in fear of crime, including prior victimization, community disorder, and population density. A number of scholars have examined gender differences in fear, consistently finding that women experience greater levels of fear than men. Given the high level of violence against LGB people, particularly anti-LGB violence, it is surprising that no studies to date have considered sexual orientation differences in fear of violence.

Doug Meyer and I recently published an article on gender and sexual orientation differences in fear in the Journal of Homosexuality (April 2014). This was the first study to examine whether sexual minority (e.g., lesbian, gay, and bisexual [LGB]) people are more likely to report fear of crime and violence than heterosexuals. In light of the extensive work on women’s heightened levels of fear relative to men’s, we also considered whether sexual orientation differences in fear differed by gender. I briefly summarize our study below.

Initial Findings

We used data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of adults in the US. Our outcome of interest was self-reports of fear at night. That is, whether respondents said yes to the following question: “Is there any area right around here – that is, within a mile of your residence – where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?”  

We found that approximately one-third of adults reported being afraid to walk alone in their own neighborhood. As prior research has indicated, women were significantly more likely to report fear than men (44% compared to 19%). Similarly, sexual minoritiesand people of were significantly more likely than heterosexuals and non-Hispanic whites, respectively, to report being afraid to walk alone at night. These differences are displayed in the graph below.

Graph 1 Fear - Main Statuses

Next, we assessed whether these initial sexuality differences in fear hold once accounting for gender, race and ethnicity, age, education, income, religiosity, urbanicity, and region. Indeed, even net of these other factors, sexual minorities were significantly more likely than heterosexuals to report fear at night. Women and Blacks and Latina/os were also significantly more likely to report such fear than men and non-Hispanic whites, respectively. We found other significant differences, as well: greater fear with decreasing income; and, greater likelihood of reporting fear among Southerners and those living in urban areas.

In sum, we found that sexual minorities were significantly more likely than heterosexuals to report being afraid to walk alone at night in their own neighborhoods. Women, people of color, and lower-income individuals also shared this heightened sense of fear relative to men, non-Hispanic whites, and higher-income individuals, respectively. Considering these patterns, we decided to explore the intersections among sexuality, gender, and race and ethnicity in these reports of fear, which I discuss below.

Intersections among Sexuality, Gender, and Race and Ethnicity

The graph below displays the reports of being afraid to walk alone at night in one’s neighborhood for the four gender-sexuality subgroups: heterosexual men, heterosexual women, sexual minority men, and sexual minority women.

Graph 2 Fear - Gender-Sexuality

Sexual minorities’ and women’s higher reports of fear compared to heterosexuals’ and men’s, respectively, mask the patterns at the intersections of sexuality and gender. The effect of sexuality on fear is gendered, wherein it distinguishes reports of fear among men but not women. Heterosexual women (44%), sexual minority men (41%), and sexual minority women (46%) are significantly more likely than heterosexual men (19%) to report fear at night. However, the three former groups’ reports of fear do not significantly differ from one another.

We investigated whether race and ethnicity intersected with gender and sexuality in reports of fear, as well. The graph below displays fear for each racial/ethnic-gender subgroup.

Graph 3 Fear - Gender-Race

We found that the effect of race and ethnicity on fear at night was unique to men once we controlled for the effect other sociodemographic characteristics. That is, like the effect of sexuality, race and ethnicity distinguished men’s but not women’s reports.

We were unable to consider simultaneous intersections among sexuality, gender, and race and ethnicity due to the small number of sexual minorities. You can see differences just in percentages, without controlling for the effects of other sociodemographic characteristics, in the graph below. These patterns should be interpreted with caution given sampling constraints.

Graph 4 Fear - Race-Gender-Sexuality

One in six white heterosexual men reported being afraid to walk alone at night in their neighborhoods. That jumps to one in four for heterosexual men of color, and approximately two-fifths of white heterosexual women and white sexual minorities. And, half (or slightly more) of women of color and sexual minority men of color reported fear at night. These differences in fear mirror the disproportionate violence experienced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged identities.

Conclusion

Using a nationally representative survey, we found that sexual minorities are more likely than heterosexuals to be afraid to walk alone at night in their own neighborhoods. However, this sexuality gap reflects differences among men; substantially more women (both heterosexual and sexual minority) and sexual minority men report fear at night than heterosexual men. A similar gender-specific effect exists for race and ethnicity. Black and Latino men are more likely than white men to report fear at night; however, fear does not differ by race and ethnicity among women once accounting for the effect of other sociodemographic characteristics.

Our paper emphasizes the importance of studying the intersections among racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression. Prior research comparing women’s and men’s fear of crime and violence has (unintentionally) assumed that these gender differences hold across sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, and other statuses; however, we found that it appears to be limited to white heterosexuals’ reports of fear. Given the vast diversity among women, as well as men, these groups’ experiences should not be treated as universal. Our other studies highlight the urgent need to attend to the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals (e.g. Black LGBT people), who are often the most vulnerable to violence and discrimination.

Parenting And Racial Discrimination

Trayvon-Martin-George-Zimmerman-620x457

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.

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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).

Concluding Thoughts

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).

TRAYVON_MARTIN_NEW_PHOTO_1When 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.”

References

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.

Preventing Sexual Violence And Supporting Survivors Is A Community Responsibility

The title of this post sums up the position that many have taken in efforts to prevent sexual violence (e.g., rape, sexual assault, incest, stalking, sexual harassment) and to support survivors of violence.  Such a stance goes against two problematic positions, one hostile and one supportive to survivors of violence.

  1. Hostile Victim-Blaming: Unfortunately, many people lay blame for sexual violence in the hands of victims of violence themselves.  Violent acts, such as sexual assault, are seen as incidents that are preventable simply by changing one’s behavior, interactions with others, appearance, and mentality.  First, survivors of violence, especially women, face the dilemma of providing proof that they have been victimized.  Second, if they are believed, they must provide enough evidence to convince others that such violence was not somehow the result of being sexually promiscuous, dressing in revealing clothing, giving “mixed signals” in interactions (sexual and non-sexual) with one’s attacker, drinking too much, and so forth.
  2. Supportive Victim-Blaming: Indeed, many are concerned with eliminating sexual violence for good.  But, efforts to prevent violence, like the above, center on the victims of violence themselves.  As an online op-ed at Ebony magazine points out, too much sexual violence prevention work provides potential and past victims of violence suggestions to protect themselves: don’t walk alone at night in unfamiliar places, tell a friend where you are going, watch your drinks at parties, don’t go home with strangers.  While this position differs from the above in its concern for survivors of violence, it too lays responsibility for sexual violence on the victims themselves.

Sexual Violence As A Social Problem

With estimates denoting that 17-25 percent of women and 3 percent of men are survivors of violence (experiencing sexual violence at least once in their lifetimes), it is undeniable that a substantial portion of the US population is directly or indirectly affected by violence.  The numbers alone point to a larger, systemic problem that cannot be reduced to the individual motivations and actions of every instance of sexual violence.  Yet, there are many other social factors that contribute to making sexual violence a standard component of our social world, as well.

  • Myths and stereotypes: One barrier to acknowledging and addressing sexual violence and supporting victims of violence is the inaccurate, and sometimes offensive, “information” that pervades our culture regarding gender, sex, sexuality, and violence.  Sexual violence myths include assuming all victims are women, attacked by a lone stranger (a man) in a ski mask lurking in the bushes.  But, stereotypes outside of sexual violence also contribute to a false understanding of sexual violence: men with uncontrollable sexual appetites (“they can’t help themselves“), women who have or should have little interest in sex, strong and aggressive men and weak and passive women, LGBT people as sexual aggressors, etc.
  • Exclusive focus on victims: Even in prevention advocacy and research, we place so much attention on survivors of violence — who are they, what happened to them, how many are there.  Despite extreme underreporting of sexual violence because of stereotypes, the feeling that no one will believe you, fear of retaliation by one’s attacker, and so forth, we have some sense of the demographics of survivors of violence.  But, we know little about perpetrators of sexual violence, with most information coming from reports about those who have been convicted of sexual violence.  One important fact, surprising to some, is that most perpetrators of sexual violence are not men lurking in bushes at night, nor are they otherwise innocent men who got carried away once in sexual activity; perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders (of both sexual violence and non-sexual crimes) and often know the person they attack.
  • Misplaced responsibility: Too often, potential and past victims of sexual violence are burdened with the responsibility for such violence and any efforts to prevent violence.  We, as a society, generally fail to place such responsibility on the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And, when we do, we narrowly focus on them, while ignoring others’ responsibilities to prevent sexual violence and to support survivors.  Many advocates and researchers are beginning to promote the notion of bystander intervention, which calls upon others who witness violence to intervene.  And, while we must push to never see another case where bystanders stand idly by as someone is attacked, our efforts to encourage bystander intervention also include promoting ways to change the culture that condones sexual violence: challenging gender stereotypes and gender socialization in general; teaching about sexual violence; teaching about sexual violence as expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, xenophobia, ableism, and so on.
  • Exclusive focus on gender: Another barrier to comprehensively understanding sexual violence is focusing exclusively on the role of gender: men rape women.  What is missing from this narrow analysis, besides overlooking male survivors of violence, is attention to the ways that sexual violence intersects with race and ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, class, body size and shape, age, nativity, and ability.  Attending to these systems of oppression does not mean only documenting demographic characteristics of the survivors and perpetrators of violence.  It also means assessing how sexual violence may operate as manifestations of these systems of power, for sexual violence itself is an expression of power over another person.  For example, in many countries, lesbian, bisexual, and queer women are raped by men in an effort to “cure” them of their sexual orientation.
  • Ignoring the role of society: Given the pervasive problem of sexual violence in society, many advocates and academics have argued for thinking about sexual violence more broadly.  As noted above, we too often lay blame on individuals, especially survivors of violence, while ignoring the roles that communities, social institutions, and culture play.  Some have pointed out that we live in a culture that normalizes sexual violence — we live in a “rape culture.”  Various institutions, like colleges, the military, and the medical system, are implicated in their failure to prevent sexual violence, support survivors of violence, and punish perpetrators of violence.  Some have argued that these institutions are structured in ways that make sexual violence invisible and potentially even promote violence.

Indeed, given the complexity and multiple layers and dimensions of the problem of sexual violence, it seems like a tall task to take on.  But, in order to protect everyone from sexual violence and to support survivors of violence, we must address every aspect of the problem.  We can no longer leave the responsibility to prevent sexual violence exclusively in the hands of potential and past victims of violence.

Reflections On The Murder of Trayvon Martin: Stereotypes, Hypervigilance, & State-Sanctioned Racism

Source: Business Insider

On February 26th, 2012, around 7pm, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the white captain of the neighborhood watch where Martin’s father lived.  Martin was unarmed, carrying only the bag of Skittles and an iced tea that he purchased when he briefly left his father’s house.  Zimmerman, suspicious of Martin’s presence in the gated Sanford, Florida neighborhood, called 911 about Martin.  He was told by the 911 operator not to interact with Martin in any way.

Zimmerman followed him anyway, getting into an altercation with Martin when he questioned why Zimmerman was following him in his SUV truck.  By the end of the incident, Martin was face-down in the grass, dead, just 70 feet from his father’s house.  Zimmerman currently walks a free man proclaiming the incident to be self-defense, thus justifying the murder — an excuse that, at least on the surface, is legal under Florida self-defense laws.  However, many are calling for Zimmerman’s arrest for the murder, pointing to the role of racist stereotypes that can play out under these expansive self-defense laws.

Racist Stereotypes

Given Martin’s undeniable innocence in this tragic incident, the only thing he seemed guilty of was being a young black man.  As Dr. Rashawn Ray, a University of Maryland sociology professor, has pointed out, this incident, and many others like it, are evidence that black men are too often, and almost automatically presumed to be criminals.  He notes, drawing on sociological research on race, crime, and punishment:

[S]ociological research continues to show that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be disciplined in school and stopped by the police. While some may anecdotally argue that black kids are badder than white kids, studies show a more pressing problem — teachers and police officers monitor, profile and police black and Latino youth and neighborhoods more than white ones.

The arrest of Harvard University professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, in 2009 for trying to enter his own house gives us evidence that any Black man, no matter how wealthy, educated, or even respected in white America, may fall prey to being treated as a common thug or criminal.  In 2010, I was witness to a similar incident, when a fellow member of the Diversity Fellows Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Dr. Calvin Warren, was hassled by UW-M campus police because he was thought to fit the description of a young black man who police were looking for.  (It goes without surprise that the two look nothing alike, the police never apologized for harassing him, and an internal investigation of the incident dismissed Dr. Warren’s behavior as uncooperative and hostile while the police were just doing their job.)

Additional research by sociologists like Dr. Devah Pager points to other consequences, besides the potential for violence, unfair arrest, and harassment by police, of these racist stereotypes.  In her work, she examines differential treatment in hiring practices by race and criminal record.  In one study using audit methodology, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” Dr. Pager found that men who were Black, and men with a criminal record, were less likely to receive callbacks for jobs than men who were white, and men without criminal records, respectively.  However, the most shocking finding was that these race and criminal record differences interacted, wherein white men with criminal records were still more likely than Black men without criminal records to receive job call backs.  Black men with criminal records were the least likely to be called back, and white men without criminal records were the most likely to be called back.  You can see the graph below:

"The Mark of a Criminal Record"

Figure 6 from Pager, Devah. 2003. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology 108: 937-75.

So, in the event that there is any question as to why it matters that racist stereotypes still exist, the unjustified murder of Trayvon Martin, the racial discrimination in hiring, among other outcomes that constrain the livelihood, success, health, and well-being of Black people is your answer.  People’s beliefs, including prejudice, shape their behaviors.  This might even explain the consistent hostility toward President Barack Obama — criticism that has, at times, seemed greater than is warranted for his (perceived) failings.

The Other Consequence For Blacks: Hypervigilance

How do Black people navigate the stereotypes in everyday life they face — those assumptions that may lead to limited opportunities for work, unfair arrest or hostile treatment by the police, violence, unfair treatment in public service, and so forth?  These stereotypes range from the view of young Black men as criminals, young Black women as sexually promiscuous (“jezebels“), older Black women as comforting “mammies,” and so forth.  Dr. Ray, likely expressing the concern of many Black people, spoke frankly about these concerns for his children on The Young Turks.

For some Black folks, hypervigilance is the product of living with such (racist) realities.  One must constantly be alert and self-aware, ensuring that one is safe and avoiding fulfilling whites’ stereotypes about Black people.  Watch how you speak, dress this way, avoid these areas at these times, sit like this, etc.  Setting aside the debates between assimilating to white norms and challenging them momentarily, these are real matters to consider given the concerns for one’s safety and well-being.

In this era of modern racism, where racial prejudice is covert, even unconscious and implicit, it can feel like one is walking on a field covered with landmines of little (or big) racially-tinged events.  Unfortunately, the hurt of these events, ranging from microaggressions (e.g., “you’re not like other Black people!”) to racist violence is compounded by the denial that racism continues to be a problem today.  This makes for conditions similar to schizophrenia, I would argue; you do not know who might harm or offend you in terms of race and, once hurt, you might be told you are being hypersensitive or playing the “race card.”

State-Sanctioned Racism

How does one’s prejudice, even if implicit, translate into the death of an innocent, unarmed 17-year-old Black man?  Without attempting to assess the racial attitudes of Zimmerman, especially given his history of criminal behavior, we can at least talk about how racist attitudes are allowed to become racist behaviors.  Today, with civil rights and non-discrimination laws, discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, health care, and so forth, is illegal; hate crime laws sometimes tack on harsher sentences in the case of bias-motivated violence and property damage.  Of course, more minor, everyday forms of discrimination are not illegal, for they are not seen as damaging to marginalized groups’ well-being, despite evidence that suggests otherwise when these events accumulate.

There are some laws and policies that are blatant in their intent to discriminate against people of color, for example, the new law in Arizona that allows the racial profiling of Latina/o people or those perceived to be Latina/o in an effort to crack down on illegal immigration.  Other laws, like the self-defense law in Florida, may not explicitly implicate race, but can be exercised in ways that facilitates racial discrimination and racist violence.  A post at Feministe does a great job of explicating this point:

A “reasonableness” standard is important in evaluating a self-defense argument. The key, though, is reasonable to whom? In many jurisdictions, deadly force is only justified if a reasonable person in the same circumstances would believe it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. What’s interesting — and troubling — about the Florida statute is that it doesn’t include any duty to retreat (instead allowing force to be met with force), and it doesn’t require that a “reasonable person” would find the circumstances potentially life-threatening. It requires that the individual who used deadly forced “reasonably believed” that the use of force was necessary. It’s a small distinction, but an important one (and it’s Bernie Goetz all over again). A “reasonable person” would not think that a young black man walking down the street was a threat to his life. But an individual with a particular set of experiences and views might be able to convince a jury that he reasonably believed that. In a racist society, you can find a racist person who “reasonably believes” that the existence of a black kid is dangerous, and that a confrontation with a black kid — even if the white adult started it — is life-threatening.

One point that has come up time and again in my dissertation research (on the health consequences of discrimination) is that when laws and policies are less standardized and rigid, there is more room for people in power (e.g., managers, supervisors) to use their own discretion.  This may mean that their biases may sneak in.  For example, in an audit study comparing hiring practices of gay male compared to heterosexual male potential employees, sociologist Dr. Andras Tilcsik found preference given to heterosexual men because they are assumed to be more decisive, aggressive, and ambitious than gay men.  However, when policies and laws are more standardized, leaving little room for personal discretion, there tend to be fewer reports and complaints of discrimination.

Things We Can Do

Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin is dead.  So, what can we do now?

  • You may consider signing the Change.org petition to arrest and try George Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin.
  • As Dr. Ray points out, we could work within ourselves to challenge our stereotypes and assumptions:

Socially, when individuals meet a “good” black man, they can be seen as the rule and not the exception. Most black men are not criminals or untrustworthy; they are law-abiding citizens. People need to start recognizing social class cues that signal professionalism and decency instead of ubiquitously categorizing black men as dangerous.  It is high time that individuals see not just a black man, but a man who could be a doctor, lawyer, neighbor or even the president. These changes in individuals’ perceptions will a go long way to solve the criminalization of nonwhite bodies.

  • Also, we can challenge others’ assumptions and stereotypes.
  • We can assess whether the expansion of self-defense laws may lead to greater protection or greater harm.  In particular, we should ask whether these laws open the door for greater violence against marginalized groups.
  • We should ensure that the media paints a holistic picture of Black people in America, rather than promoting the usual stereotypes of Blacks as criminals, stupid, lazy, or, on the “positive” side, only good at entertaining.
  • Rather than remaining complacent, we can continue to advance discrimination and hate crime laws to protect marginalized groups from differential treatment, especially in this era of covert prejudice.
  • We must begin to talk more frankly about race, rather than skirting these conversations in this so-called post-racial era.  President Barack Obama’s presidency should be seen as re-sparking the conversation on race and racism, rather than ending it.