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Parenting And Racial Discrimination


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).

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.”


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.

“Gay Panic” And Anti-LGBT Hate Crimes Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin

When I was home in the DC area for winter break, I met up with a good friend who had recently moved there from Indiana.  The first thing he told me was that a professor in his department had been murdered.  “Whoa, that’s crazy!” I said, not sure what else to say, and then turning back to look at the books in the “lesbian interest” section of the queer bookstore we were browsing.  I had no idea how tragic the story really was, nor that it would quickly become national (to some degree, even international) news.  On December 28th, Indiana University Professor Don Belton was stabbed to death by Michael J. Griffin.  Griffin used a 10-inch-long knife to stab Belton five to six times, later telling police that he had done so because Belton had sexually assaulted him twice and showed no remorse.  Belton’s department, IU Department of English, has expressed their sadness about for the loss, and members of the community have also come together to express their sadness and demand for justice for his murder.

“Gay Panic”

I am surprised to say the last thing I predicted I would hear about Belton’s death was reference to the “gay panic” defense for attacking a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person.  But, because of Griffin’s claim that he was sexually assaulted, some, including CBS, have speculated whether this ugly defense will rear its head in this tragedy when it goes to court.  Griffin has pleaded not guilty to the murder, and, it would seem pretty far-fetched for him to claim “gay panic”: that he momentarily went insane because of an exposure to homosexuality.  Belton’s personal diary denotes excitement about a new relationship with “Michael”; further, Griffin went to Belton’s home with a 10-inch-knife and an extra set of clothes.  (He fled the scene and disposed of his bloody clothes.)  That sounds like a slam dunk for premeditated murder to me.  Right?

A Hate Crime?

This weekend, back in Indiana, a good friend and I discussed the murder.  He stated that this should be tried as a hate crime, as it could be argued that Griffin planned and carried out a murder of a gay man, with whom he had at least two romantic encounters, claiming that he had been sexually assaulted by the man.  My quick rebuttal was that Griffin himself, by virtue of his sexual relationship with Belton, could not be accused of a hate crime.  But, very quickly, my friend pointed out his own sexual orientation and/or behavior is irrelevant – if he killed Belton because of his hatred for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, he has committed a hate crime.  This point transcends this case, as there have been rumors that one of the men who killed the late Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1997 in Wyoming because of his gay sexual orientation, is bisexual.  In both of these cases, a gay man has been murdered and blamed for his own murder because of his supposed sexual advances toward a heterosexual-identified man – a reality that can only be true in the eyes of someone who holds inaccurate stereotypes and hostile feelings toward gay people: a hate crime.

“Gay Panic” And Hate Crimes Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin

If you do the math, the end result is the same.  With a “gay panic” defense, an attack has occurred against a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person because of their sexual orientation.  With a hate crime conviction, an attack has occurred against a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person because of their sexual orientation.  These two pseudo-legal conceptions are strangely two sides of the same coin; however, with the “gay panic” defense, the homophobic attacker is not faulted for their own actions – they were so overwhelmed with someone’s gay sexuality that they temporarily lost touch with reality and attacked the supposed source of this psychosis.  For this defense to be successful, which I believe it has had some, society, culture, and the law must accept that lesbian, gay, and bisexual sexualities are bad and that it is reasonable to be afraid of them;  thus, both the “gay panic” defense and anti-LGBT hate crimes stem from homophobia.

Remembering Don Belton

A memorial service is scheduled for Belton tomorrow, January 15that 5pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 2120 North Fee Lane in Bloomington, Indiana.  There was a large vigil held in town on January 1st, as well.  And, Inside Higher Ed reports “And Josh Lukin tells me that he is proposing a session called ‘Remembering Don Belton’ for the next MLA — a panel ‘engaging his scholarship, art, journalism, and pedagogy.’ Possible topics might include ‘his writing and teaching on black masculinity, Baldwin, Brecht, Mapplethorpe, Morrison, Motown, jazz, cinema, abjection,’ to make the list no longer than that.“  It is my hope that Belton’s murder will spark a more in-depth and complex understanding of the way prejudice operates, and that society, culture, and the law will progress to reflect it.

Update (03-10-2013): In revisiting this post after the recent murder of Marco McMillian, a gay Mississippi politician, this discussion remains relevant.  Again, a murder has been justified as the result of being sexual assaulted by a gay person, or panicking after consensual same-gender sex.

Also, I wish to make explicit my intentional skirting of violence against trans* people.  Though I referenced “anti-LGBT” violence, this post mostly reflected homophobic violence against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.  This was not the negligence of referring to all LGBT people when really meaning gays and lesbians only.  While homophobia affects the lives of trans* people, the reality of transphobia and cissexism cannot and should not be subsumed into discussions of homophobia and heterosexism.

Thus, I did my best in this post not to conflate ‘LGB’ with ‘T’ and homophobia with transphobia.  It is important to acknowledge prejudice, discrimination, and violence against all sexual and gender minorities, while also being certain to acknowledge and address the unique complexities of homophobia (anti-gay and anti-lesbian), biphobia, and transphobia.  (Thanks to my friend, Aubrey, for asking for clarification on this!)