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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 the recent sociological blog debate on racism versus the supposed dawn of “post-racism” in America, we often touched on problems that make talking about racism difficult, if not entirely impossible. In addition to institutional constraints, there are interpersonal factors that can derail meaningful conversations about race and racism. In addition to calling attention to these barriers, it is important to make explicit that too few people take on this difficult task.
Responsibility For (Anti-)Racism
In general, too few people consistently assume responsibility for talking about race and racism, and fighting racism more broadly. That kind of work is presumed to be taken on by activists and leaders of social movements. But, in particular, the responsibility generally falls in the laps of those victimized by it — in this case, people of color. As Jason noted in his contribution to the “post-racism” blog debate, racial and ethnic minorities generally face this burden alone.
But, people of color are neither alone in this racist society nor the creators of this system of oppression. Whites are implicated by virtue of the benefits they receive (i.e., white privilege) from the historical legacy of racism, as well as today. Eliminating racism, then, is just as much their responsibility, if not more, as it is for people of color.
As I re-watched a few of ABC’s “What Would You Do” social experiments regarding race and racism, I was reminded just how problematic America’s sense of responsibility for racism and anti-racism are. While too few whites intervene when they witness racist discrimination in stores against (innocent) people of color, many seem quick to intervene to sanction Black people’s criminal behavior but not that of whites (see part 1 and part 2). (Three young Black men sleeping in their own car got more calls to 911 than did three young white men vandalizing and breaking into someone else’s car.)
A Personal Anecdote
Racist events are plentiful, from small slights to extreme forms of violence. So, there are too many missed opportunities to confront racism, or at least learn from these events to do things differently in the future. One such event stands out in my own life.
At the start of my second semester of graduate school, my cohort and I sat through the beginning of our training and preparation to carry out a telephone survey on social attitudes that summer. In talking through concerns for the project, whether we as interviewers “talk black” was posed as a potential bias in our interviews. It felt as though as though a grenade had gone off right in the middle of class, but we continued on ignoring it. I thought, “was I the only one who heard that?”
This event only became an issue when my colleagues of color and I were overheard joking about the racist comment the following week. That was brought to the attention of the professor who, out of concern, asked us whether and how to “handle” this. Three weeks later, we finally devoted an entire two-hour class to discussing the comment about “talking black” — a phrase the professor wrote explicitly on the board to facilitate our conversation.
Of course, five minutes that felt like an eternity passed before anyone broke the thick silence that suffocated the room — it was me, naturally, in which I called attention to that deafening silence. As the tense conversation carried on, my cohort was divided, with the students of color and anti-racist white students taking issue with the concern about “talking black,” and the rest remaining silent, or speaking up to say they did not see a problem or even recast the comment in their head so that it was not problematic.
The conversation boiled down to whether the commenter said “talking black” or talking black, where the quotation marks became the symbolic boundary between belief that there is a(n inferior) style of English unique to Black Americans and the knowledge that others believe that (but not believing it oneself). Only a racist person would forgo the quotation marks, for this would reflect their own beliefs.
With the conversation ending with a half-ass apology from the commenter, that one’s upbringing in the Midwest should suffice as an excuse for one’s racist prejudice, we left the room more divided than ever before. The rest of our department remained curious bystanders, but nothing more came of these events outside of the efforts of students of color to challenge racism in the department and university.
To add insult to injury, later in the semester, my colleagues of color and I overheard some of our classmates complain about the ongoing divisiveness, placing blame on us for not having gotten “over it” yet. Their simultaneous lack of understanding and lack of sympathy only further fueled the division. I am happy to say that a great deal has been forgiven, but one can never forget such events. But, sadly, because little came of it, we saw yet another racist event occur years later.
A Call For Bystander Intervention
I, as others before me, call for a bystander intervention approach to ending racism. Too often, individuals not directly involved in a dangerous or difficult scenario — or bystanders — simply stand-by and watch without intervening to provide help. As such, in the case of the prevention of sexual violence (since this “bystander effect” was coined after no one intervened in the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese), advocates have strongly emphasized the need to turn bystanders into potential interveners – “bystander intervention.” Applied to racism, this means that individuals are called to action to intervene if they witness racist discrimination, bullying, or violence.
However, I push this anti-racist bystander intervention one step further beyond intervening in difficult situations. Similar to my calls for bystander intervention to prevent sexual violence (i.e., rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment), I stress that our anti-racist work must include a sense that racism is a community issue and, as such, anti-racism is a community responsibility.
Ways To Intervene
A related aspect is noting that racism exists at multiple levels and, as such, there are an infinite number of ways in which we can fight it:
- One can intervene when they witness racist discrimination or harassment. Of course, this depends upon a number of factors that make this easier said than done. And, no one should intervene in ways that place them at risk for getting hurt. If it is a scenario of extreme violence, like a racially-motivated hate crime, a safe means of intervening may be to call the police. If it is an instance of the unfair firing of a Latina coworker, you could approach your supervisor to note that you feel your coworker deserves a second chance.
- Challenge racist prejudice. This can entail calling people out who appear to harbor prejudice toward people of color, or hold misguided stereotypes. It also means calling out offensive comments that others’ may make about racial and ethnic minorities.
- Challenge yourself. No matter one’s racial or ethnic background, and one’s racial ideology, no one is immune to the pervasive poison of racism. It is important to also check your own biases and actions. Do you seek out friends of the same race? Do you avoid “that part of town”? Do you do certain things, at least in part, to avoid appearing racist?
- Educate yourself. Unfortunately, most Americans leave formal education knowing little about racism and the history and experiences of people of color beyond obligatory coverage during Black History Month. To push beyond this, one can take the time to learn more (even from March to January). Read books about and by people of color. Go see films on historical and contemporary accounts of the lives of racial and ethnic minorities. Visit museums that feature exhibits on race and ethnicity. Become comfortable talking about race and racism with the people around you, no matter their race and ethnicity.
- Support victims of racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence. As I wrote the first suggestion, I realized that there are so many concerns that one may have in directly challenging racist actions. But, there are fewer concerns regarding harm in supporting victims of these actions. Though your supervisor who unfairly fired your Latina coworker very well could threaten you, as well, you are freer to reach out to your coworker. See if she wants to talk, needs help finding a new job, or even filing a discrimination or EEO complaint. Even outside of severe instances of racist acts, you can be a supportive ally by really hearing people out when they reveal their experiences to you (rather than blaming them or encouraging them to think of alternative reasons for those acts).
- Challenge racist practices of organizations and institutions. Though the days of overt racist laws and policies are mostly gone, there are still many — albeit neutral in intention and language — that disproportionately harm people of color. It is important to challenge these, just as it is to challenge racism at the individual-level. Maybe you can speak up if your workplace implements a dress-code policy that unfairly targets racial and ethnic minorities. Take action to prevent the efforts to repeal Affirmative Action and other policies that aim to redress racial inequality. Educate yourself and others about how new policies or policy change can contribute to racial equality, even if they are not targeted solely toward people of color (e.g., Affordable Care Act).
Obviously, everyone cannot become leaders of social movements like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or lead deadly anti-racist efforts like abolitionist John Brown or the slain Mississippi civil rights workers. Most of us are not lifelong activists.
But, there are many opportunities throughout a given day to make a difference, no matter how small. For, even small acts add up to a big contribution to challenge prejudice and stereotypes, educate oneself and others, end racist discrimination and violence, and promote racial diversity and equality. Just as we are all implicated in racism, it will take all of us to end it.
Racism, as a social system, shapes and structures every aspect of society. As sociologist Eduado Bonilla-Silva argues in his structural perspective of racism (PDF), racism operates as a social structure that has taken on a life of its own, and serves as an “organizing principle of social relations in itself” (page 475). So, a more appropriate conceptualization of racism reminds us that it operates as a system of oppression, not merely an ideology (i.e., racial prejudice or, the more sanitized reference to “racial attitudes”) nor actions (i.e., interpersonal racial discrimination). Borrowing from sociologist Barbara Risman‘s thesis of gender (specifically sexism) as a social structure (PDF), we can think of racism as system that operates on multiple levels:
- Racialized Individuals: aspects of the self directly related to race (e.g., racial identity, racial attitudes) and consequences of racism (e.g., health, income, education, values, aspirations).
- Racialized Interactions: re-creation and reinforcement of racial inequality in interactions between individuals (e.g., racial discrimination; “doing” race and holding one another accountable for “appropriate” performances of our presumed race; immediate, automatic categorization of others by race).
- Racialized Institutions: laws, policies, organizational practices, cultural and social norms that re-create and reinforce racial inequality (e.g., racial disparities in the criminal justice system, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, pay inequality, “professional” standards that privilege white middle-class ways of living and behaving).
When framed this way, our challenge is not to “prove” when race does matter or when racism is at play. Rather, racism is understood as universally and perpetually relevant, shaping the core of every aspect of social life. We are hard pressed, then, to prove when race doesn’t mater or when racism isn’t at play. This puts to rest the misguided and naive discussions about the supposed “post-racial” society. And, it helps to maintain attention to racial prejudice, while not being completely distracted by playing the “who’s a racist?” game.
Even in this modern era — supposedly “post-racial,” or even “post-racist,” — racism operates as a daily burden in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities. As such, scholars have introduced a fitting concept: everyday racism:
Racism is easily recognized in its extreme forms (e.g., white youth beating up and killing dark-skinned people), or in its overt forms (e.g., throwing bananas at black players on European soccer fields). Everyday racism can be more coded (a white teacher saying to an African-American student: “How come you write so well?”); ingrained in institutional practice (appointing friends of friends for a position, as a result of which the workplace remains white); and not consciously intended (when lunch tables in a canteen or cafeteria are informally racially segregated and the white manager “naturally” joins the table with the white workers where only they will benefit from casually shared, relevant information and networking).
The term is quite apt, first, because of its reference to the daily occurrences of subtle actions, slights, and microaggressions, and second, because it refers to a common, “everyday” feel of the reality of racism. By attending to the extreme, overt expressions of racism of a few “bad apples,” we miss the widespread existence of minor, subtle expressions of racism. Though a rare slight here or there has little effect, the everyday exposure to these slights adds up, taking a toll on the health and well-being of each person of color.
In fact, the health consequence of everyday racial discrimination is comparable to, and may even exceed, those of major events of discrimination, like being unfairly fired or denied a job. This is, in part, due to the heavy cognitive and emotional toll of processing — “was that discrimination? was that because I’m Latina?” Despite the stereotype that people of color are quick to “play the race card,” to assume unsatisfactory or differential outcomes are the result of discrimination, most probably go through a series of steps in their heads before concluding racism may have been at play. That represents a lot of used up mental and emotional energy, on top of all of the other stressors everyone experiences regardless of race, as well as those disproportionately faced by people of color (e.g., poverty, barriers to important institutions like education, health care, etc.).
Ironically, because of accusations of hypersensitivity or that one is “playing the race card,” people of color face even greater pressure to process potentially racist events before making such conclusions. Yet, one still faces the risk of having one’s claims of victimization denied or dismissed. This, then, could lead one to doubt or question their own experiences, or feel that white people — even those who proclaim to be allies, liberal, anti-racist, or “color-blind” — just don’t “get” it and thus aren’t worth speaking with about issues related to race and racism.
Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment
I will say up front that this may be my own, personal burden: daily disappointment. It may come as a surprise that I am stubbornly optimistic. I have chosen to devote my life’s work to challenging inequality, prejudice and discrimination, and exclusion, and promoting equality, acceptance, and diversity because I have high hopes that such change can (continue to) occur. And, though a product of their time and social context, humans are capable of good, humanity, and peace. So, despite the crappy things that I may experience, witness, or read or hear about today, I will sleep tonight and wake tomorrow with replenished hope for peace and justice.
My optimism is a gift. And, it is often a curse, leaving me open to constant disappointment. An example:
I spent my first Christmas with my partner a couple of months ago. Deciding against participating in the capitalist take-over of the holiday, we spent the day together as our “gifts” to each other. I decided to take a brief walk to get some fresh air, and used getting sodas from the local gas station as a fine excuse. (There wasn’t much else open on the holiday.) I walked to the store jamming to Shangela’s “Werqin’ Girl,” and feeling great (I’m digging songs by drag queens these days). I headed to the back toward the coolers, and two women entered the store after me. With sodas in hand, I got in line to check out. Two people were ahead of me in line. I watched as the cashier told one customer (a young white man), “you’re coming back later? Oh, you can pay for this then.” Such trust. And, sadly, my first thought was, “there is no way this white cashier would trust me to pay for something later, no matter how many times he sees me as a customer here.” It is what it is in this racist country.
Then, another customer (a white woman) cut in front of me in line. I thought many things in that moment: maybe she hasn’t seen me yet; maybe she is planning to get behind me once we move forward; maybe she is with this other (white woman) customer. Maybe there is some logical reason for her otherwise rude behavior. The other customer began checking out. The person who cut in line did not check out with her. She did not move behind me upon seeing me. I became angry. “Should I tell her, politely, that I was next in line?” I decided to let it go, albeit unsuccessfully. My anger started to beat out my logic. I moved closer, attempting to rely on her presumed fear of me as a large brown man to get her attention. Nothing. With her purse on the counter, partially open, I rested my hand close to it, trying harder to make her uncomfortable. Nothing. She checked out. I checked out.
Outside, I noticed the two white women were together, though they did not check out their purchases within the same transaction. I walked out toward the street, putting my headphones back on. I noticed the two women pull up behind me in their van. An opportunity for revenge! I stood in the way of their exit. I looked both ways before crossing the street: once, twice, three times. When it was obvious that the street was safe to cross, and had been for more time than presumably necessary, I looked back at the woman who cut in front of me in line. Then, I looked her up and down, and proceeded to cross the street.
The entire event disappointed me. Can’t I go one day — even Christmas day — without being forced to think about racism? And, my own (constrained) actions disappointed me. Wasn’t there a better way to handle the situation? But, unfortunately, people of color are constantly placed in these situations to process, to weigh appropriate courses of action (or inaction). We are placed in situations in which we are forced to ask, “was that about race?” And, no matter our response, we are left thinking about it days, months, or years later, while it never develops into a significant memory in the minds of our privileged counterparts.
The insult to the injury of these events of everyday racism are the responses that belittle our experiences: “are you sure that was about race?”; “maybe you’re overreacting”; “maybe…” [some other “logical” explanation]; “just try to forget about it.” Upon facing some subtle, minor, and presumably “innocent” incident, we are then told by a group who are not faced with such a burden that our reaction, how we feel, think, or act, is inappropriate or excessive. Figuratively speaking, you are punched in the gut and then asked why you are curled over and groaning.
I suppose I could avoid these daily disappointments by assuming the worst in people. But, disappointed or not, I am inclined to continue to see the potential for good and kindness in every person. I can’t imagine that great leaders of yesterday and today would be as strong in their conviction if they had little hope for humanity.