Sunday, April 8, 2012

Trayvon Martin in Black and White

A series of new polls indicate that blacks and whites have sharply different views regarding the Trayvon Martin killing. Although these polls focus only on racial perspectives regarding this particular case, they confirm previous long-running studies which show that race substantially impacts viewpoint.

According to a Gallup/USA Today poll, for example, 73 percent of blacks believe that George Zimmerman would have been arrested had Martin been white. Only 33 percent of whites share this belief. This statistic shows that whites and blacks hold greatly disparate views about fairness in the criminal justice system.

The Gallup/USA Today poll also reveals that most whites are not closely following this story. As Tommy Christopher of Mediaite observes, this is probably because they do not "have" to: "Their kids will never be Trayvon Martin. That’s just one of many things we’ll never truly understand about being black in America."

What Does Reality Tell Us?
While many commentators have chosen to end their analysis after merely stating the racial divide the polls reveal, it is important to look beyond these numbers. Many academic studies have shown that the race of the victim is one of the most important variables in arrests and sentencing for violent crimes. This research can help us compare racial perspectives regarding Trayvon's murder with the reality of race in the United States.

With respect to the death penalty, the famous Baldus Study of the Georgia death penalty shows that persons who kill whites are more than 4 times likely to receive a death sentence than persons who kill blacks. Despite this finding, the Supreme Court refused to invalidate a death sentence of a black defendant in the infamous case McCleskey v Kemp (see case for an analysis of the Baldus Study). Although five justices on the Supreme Court deliberately turned a blind eye to these harsh racial patterns, these findings have been replicated in other states with similar results. Furthermore, these same patterns exist with other types of sentences.

Studies also show that whites tend to rate behavior by blacks as aggressive and the same behavior among whites as nonaggressive. This is especially true when the "victim" is white. These biases typically exist at the nonconscious level; accordingly, they can impact persons who do not openly embrace racial prejudice (for a more extensive discussion of this topic, see here).

What Explains the Different Views?
If so many studies demonstrate the relevance of the victim's race in sentencing and perception of aggressiveness by the defendant, why are blacks and whites sharply divided on this subject? Sociologists and psychologists would likely attribute these disparities to "system justification." System justification theorists posit that people have a natural impulse to justify the existing social order. As a result, many whites often rush to deny the existence of racism. Instead, they blame persistent patterns of racial inequality on factors other than race -- such as laziness or wrongdoing among persons of color.

Many persons of color will also try to justify the status quo. System justification can explain the impulse by persons of color to assert that racism no longer exists and that persons of color are alone responsible for their own plight. Shelby Steele's recent rant against civil rights activists makes both of these unjustifiable claims.

What To Do?
Because many whites are not paying attention to the Martin case, it is difficult to predict whether this case will become a "teaching moment" about the ongoing significance of race. But such a conversation needs to occur. The observation that racism exists is not inherently insulting to or accusatory of whites. Whites need to stop taking these things personally. Racism is a social problem -- not a white problem.  Similarly, racial inequality is a social problem -- not a failing among persons of color.

Whites should also seek to remove the phrase "playing the race card" from their vocabulary. When whites accuse persons of color of playing the race card, they are doing so themselves. The oldest race card is the contention that racism does not exist. When whites accuse blacks of "making things about race," they are basically stating the predominately white perspective that racism is nonexistent. That is a denial of reality.

To the extent that persons of color use race to demonize individual whites (or all whites), this is unhelpful behavior. Focusing more on institutional bias or implicit bias is more useful during an era in which racism exists more often at the nonconscious level.

For that reason, Zimmerman's racial background is not entirely relevant. The governmental response -- which is an institutional policy decision -- is much more important for blacks in the longterm. Activists who are responding to this case should explicitly make the distinction between Zimmerman and institutional racism among law enforcement and prosecutors in Florida.

Who's ready to talk?

For similar stories on this blog, see:

George Zimmerman "Relative" Calls Eric Holder A Racist; Grossly Misinterprets Federal Hate Crimes Law

Trayvon Martin: A Fatal Flaw in Zimmerman's Self-Defense Argument 

BREAKING NEWS: Geraldo Rivera Says Hoodie Killed Trayvon Martin

Sorry, Trayvon Martin: They Just Don't Like You

BREAKING NEWS in Trayvon Martin Case: Officer in the Case Has A Prior Record of Racial Controversy

Trayvon Martin: 911 Call Contradicts Police Account (Audio)


Trayvon Martin: "Stand Your Ground" Rule Has NOTHING To Do With This Case

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