The Trayvon Martin Shooting: Examples of Institutional and Interpersonal Racism?
Racism. That’s a word we have been hearing quite a lot about with regard to the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Just in case you've missed this story, Martin was a 17-year-old African American who was shot and killed on February 26, 2012. With all the relentless news coverage, most us know these basic facts: Martin went to a 7-Eleven store during half-time of the NBA All Star Game. He bought a packet of Skittles and some iced tea and was returning to the home of his father's fiancée in Sanford, Florida when he encountered George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch captain with a long-standing interest in law enforcement. He thought Martin looked suspicious and called 911. Although the 911 dispatcher told him not do so, Zimmerman followed Martin and according to Zimmerman, Martin attacked him, causing injuries to Zimmerman’s nose and the back of his head; Zimmerman says that in order to defend himself, he fired on the unarmed teen.
The case highlights Florida's 2005 "stand your ground" law. The law allows people to defend themselves, using deadly force, if they feel their lives are threatened. Florida legislators who crafted the law say that it was meant to allow Floridians who, for example, were defending their own property, to avoid being charged with a crime. Zimmerman invoked the stand your ground law and has not been arrested or charged; given that Martin was unarmed, and simply walking through the neighborhood there has been widespread outrage and charges of racism. Throughout the U.S. and even in London, thousands have protested the fact that Zimmerman has been neither charged nor arrested. What do you think about the case?
As a student of sociology, you can use two concepts to consider the question about the role of racism in this case: institutional racism and interpersonal racism as aspects of racial domination. According to sociologists Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer, institutional racism refers to “white domination of people of color” at the systemic level, including diverse arenas such politics, law, culture, education, and business. Institutional racism occurs not because of racist attitudes or behaviors on the part of any individual person; in fact, it may occur in spite of individuals who are decidedly opposed to racism.
The Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford has highlighted two other cases in that central Florida city that suggest institutional racism. First, in 2005 two white security guards shot and killed an African American teenager in the back. They said he was trying to run them over and they were acquitted after what many contend was a flawed investigation. Both of the security guards had ties to the Sanford Police Department—one was the son of a police officer and the other was a department volunteer. Second, in 2010, it took weeks to arrest the son of a Sanford lieutenant who sucker-punched a homeless African American man.
Initially released without being charged, the officer’s son was arrested only after video of the beating aired on local television stations. When law enforcement policies make racial/ethnic minorities their targets or overlook the illegal behavior of whites they are engaging in institutional racism. Although they may not use the sociological term “institutional racism,” that’s what people mean when they argue that these two previous cases along with the handling of Trayvon Martin’s shooting are indications that the criminal justice system in Sanford is racist. In fact, many of those protesting police handling of Martin’s shooting are calling for “justice”—asking that the relevant institutions—law enforcement entities—respond to his killing as they do when white Americans are victims.
In contrast, interpersonal racism occurs between individuals and is defined by Desmond and Emirbayer as “racial domination manifest in everyday interactions and practices”. Interpersonal racism may be conscious or not—and it is fed by our ideas and stereotypes about people of various races. Interpersonal racism refers to attitudes and behaviors between individuals rather than to institutional practices.
In the shooting of Trayvon Martin we have heard quite a bit that paints—or is intended to paint—Zimmerman as a racist. If he was acting on his individual racist attitudes, this is an example of interpersonal racism. (See this post for a discussion on the two major narratives being used by media to report the case.) Included in the evidence that Zimmerman was engaged in interpersonal racism are his 46 calls to police in little over a year—and the fact that most of the people he reported as “suspicious” were black males. Was Zimmerman afraid of Martin because the teenager was black?
Conceivably such feelings may be influenced by racism at the institutional level—for example, portrayals of black males in mass media as menacing—but on the individual level we respond to those images in varying ways. For example, we may clutch our purses when a black male approaches or feel so scared when we see one that we react as Zimmerman did.
Using Desmond and Emirbayer’s definitions, what other examples of interpersonal and institutional racism can you think of?