Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the Polarized View of Racism

Do you want to make a white person really mad? Call him a racist.

"Racist" has such a specific connotation that it can sometimes make the term virtually useless. It's why we get so many sentences that begin with, "I'm not racist but . . ." and then end with some clearly racist observation. (Here's a blog that collects evidence of this on Facebook posts. It hasn't been updated in a while, but you get the idea).

In my personal life, I've had family members that completely repudiated my interracial marriage, and sincerely said that they're not racist. They have black friends. They just think that in marriage we should stick to our own kind. And I believe, really and truly, that they believe, really and truly, that they are not racist. Even though that is obviously not true; they are clearly racist.

In some ways, we've gotten a lot better at pointing out overt racism. Most people with exposure to American culture will recognize that images like Bugs Bunny in blackface are unacceptable. We can tell you that shouting the n-word at someone is not okay. Clearly, signs that say "Whites Only" are a problem.

That doesn't mean that these things have been eradicated from our culture. In January, a landlord in Ohio tried to defend a "Whites Only" pool sign as decoration. Of course the n-word gets used as a slur every day. And our cartoons are far from free of racially stereotyped images.

The Cajun firefly from Disney's The Princess and the Frog
But, often, we are at least able to recognize these things as racist. And when we recognize and condemn these acts, we feel like we are making strides toward eliminating racism. We feel like we are fighting back against the last remnants of a shameful legacy. We feel like we're winning the fight.

So when someone calls us "racist," we get up in arms because there are very few options in this situation: get defensive so that we can continue believing that we are winning the fight or recognize the reality that we are not winning the fight at all. 

Even as we've identified and removed some overt signs of racism, we frequently allow that to stand in as a scapegoat for the more subtle, more systemic racism that impacts our entire culture. 

What does that have to do with Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old who was gunned down by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman for doing nothing more than walking back from a store with Skittles and iced tea? A lot. 

In an article about the media bias on stories about the Martin case (CNN covered the story 41 times, MSNBC 13 times, and FOX News just once), Julian Sanchez said this:
In itself, that's a matter of news judgment that could probably be defended. But I want to suggest that the disparity here may have something to do with whether one thinks institutional racism remains a serious problem in the United States. Conservatives often seem to think it isn't, and that if anything, the real problem is how often spurious charges of white racism are deployed by their political opponents, while liberals more often tend toward the opposite view. Maybe both groups are drawing justified inferences from the data they're seeing.
Like child labor, institutionalized racism -- in the form of quiet bias as opposed to overt proclamations of white supremacy -- can be hard to detect and quantify rigorously. In both cases, the people closest to the problem have strong incentives to obscure and deny it.  So people tend to fall back on what psychologists call the Availability Heuristic, a rule of thumb that says the frequency of an event should correspond to how quickly you can think of examples of it. We automatically pluralize anecdotes into data. Like much of our cognitive toolkit, it often misfires in the age of modern media--it's why people tend to be irrationally concerned with extremely rare threats, like child abduction by strangers, that draw disproportionate media attention.
And the Availability Heuristic is really important to the narrative that we are winning against racism, especially for white people. If you are a white person, then chances are you aren't on the receiving end of the kind of bias that makes up institutional racism. You probably haven't had to worry about whether your name alone is enough to get you disqualified for a job. If you are not a person of color, you may not notice that the people of color around you are up to 4 times more likely to get pulled over while driving. You may not notice that people of color are more likely to be followed while shopping, or that many people would stand by idly while they were harassed for doing nothing wrong. You might not know (as I didn't, until I went into a Barnes and Noble and could only find one age-appropriate book for my daughter that featured black characters) that children of color are often marginalized in media portrayals. Speaking of media, you might not notice that characters of color are often portrayed in negative or minimal roles. Maybe nothing has drawn your attention to the fact that whites are 4 times more likely than people of color to get a presidential pardon for a crime, even when the crimes are nearly identical. You may not have seen that (as of 2007) a black person was incarcerated at a rate 5.6 times higher than a white person or that a Hispanic person was incarcerated at a rate 1.8 times higher. You may not know that studies have found all shooters (regardless of race) are more likely to shoot unarmed black men and less likely to shoot armed white men.

We may not have noticed these things not because we're horrible people, but because these aren't in our immediate view. And, truth be told, it's a lot easier to not look at them. There are days when I really wish I could believe that all I had to do to combat racism was not shout the n-word at anyone. It's a lot easier to think about those overt signs of racism that we can feel like we're conquering. How do you conquer statistics like this? How do you react to a system of oppression that is that deeply seated?

As this article from Love Isn't Enough points out, we often portray racism as something that bad people do, an individual flaw:
It fails to grapple with the ways in which all of us are socialized to play roles based on the racial group(s) we belong to. It doesn’t address institutional racism, white privilege, unconscious bias, or the influence of the dominant racial culture, all of which are far more pervasive than individual acts of personal racism.
 And, of course, a lot of racists are bad people. But a lot of good people are acting within that racist system, too. So what can we do? We can learn how to accept that we have a place in that system and begin to change it. We can learn how to talk to other people about their places in this system as well. Here's a great starting point from Jay Smooth's TEDx Talk.

And what does that mean for Trayvon Martin? Whether Zimmerman had a racial motive for shooting or not (though new analysis of the 911 call suggests he was muttering racial slurs in the final moments of the tape), Trayvon is dead. His life has been taken from him.

In some conversations about the incident--which have brought me to tears multiple times--I have heard people defend Zimmerman's actions by saying he was "defending his neighborhood." Some have told me that, though he may have overreacted, he had the right to confront this young man if he thought there was a potential for crime. They have said that Zimmerman was right to confront him and that Trayvon's decision to run was the wrong one. After my head finished exploding, I tried to think through these comments. Someone said to me, "If I wasn't doing anything wrong, I wouldn't run." Oh really? Cause I would. If a man was staring at me and following me at night, if he had a gun, I would try to get away. And if that didn't work? I would fight and--sadly--that might mean that I, too, would die for doing nothing more than walking down the sidewalk. And maybe my killer, too, would walk free without so much as an arrest.

But probably not. I'm not a black male. I am a white female. Trayvon had an entirely different context to operate within. Many young males are coached by their parents on how to handle conflict, which will almost inevitably arise at some point. Maybe some wouldn't run from a confrontation because they do not have the same culture of fear surrounding them.

Like many others, I am struck to the core with the thought that Trayvon could have been my son. If I have a future son, his skin will be dark. He will likely be read as "suspicious" a lot more easily and a lot more often than he should be. How do I deal with that? How do any of us?

And beyond the individual emotions, I mourn for what incidents like this one mean for our collective society. As Shanelle Matthews writes:
It is disheartening how people have desensitized themselves to the plight of communities just because they don’t look like their own or how the lives of Black children are so undervalued, not because of something they’ve done but simply–just because. I can’t reconcile how some people have positioned themselves to make ethical decisions about who is and who isn’t deserving of safety, security, and justice and how those decisions magnify and shift culture, leaving entire communities on the fringes and moving targets for the Zimmermans of the world.
When we ignore the contexts in which other people live, when we are only capable of applying our own experiences to a situation, we lose sight of what's at stake: freedom, justice, and our very lives.

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