April 05, 2012

The Trayvon Martin Shooting: Examples of Institutional and Interpersonal Racism?

imageBy Janis Prince Inniss

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.

clip_image006clip_image008In 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?


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Your claims of interpersonal racism only make sense if we inhabit a magical fantasy world where all demographic groups everywhere commit the same amount of crime in equal proportions.

The fact of the matter is, young black men are responsible for more violent and property crimes per capita than any other demographic group, even when you control for poverty and other socioeconomic factors, and Zimmerman happened to live in a neighborhood with escalating rates of said criminal activity.

If you're deeply offended by this truth, don't bother chewing me out, argue with the figures published yearly by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Or the FBI's CIUS. Or the NCJRS. All of them point to the exact same conclusion.

We may argue over whether or not Zimmerman was justified in shooting Trayvon Martin (I believe the facts on the ground firmly support the former position), but disparate impact never constitutes incontrovertible proof for interpersonal racism. Never has, never will.

If black men commit significantly more crimes than the average, then that's just too bad, isn't it? Do you also believe that there is some mysterious "anti-male" bias in our judicial system because men are far more likely than women to be convicted of murder?

So the takeaway from "quiv," if I understand correctly, is that we SHOULD be afraid of black men because, proportionally, they commit more crimes. The argument seems co clear...so simple...and they even point to statistical "evidence." What it lacks is any true analysis of whether white people are justified in crossing to the other side of the street more often when they see a black man as opposed to a white man (given that they are in all other ways equal aside from their skin color.) I would think about it differently.

In terms of numbers: the raw number of white people committing crime is higher than the number of black people committing crime. There are more white people in prison than black people.

- And this is considering that fewer white criminals will end up in jail because they are 1) not the target of racial profiling and so are less likely to be pulled over or arrested even if they are criminal, 2) committing crimes in areas that are not easily accessible by law enforcement, and 3) may have better access to quality legal representation that would help them avoid incarceration. Take away these inequalities and even more white people would end up in jail than are currently incarcerated.

In terms of interaction:

- White people are more likely to come into contact with a white criminal than a black one, especially in communities that are largely segregated by race.

- A large proportion of the violent crime "quiv" points to is black-on-black crime and it is NOT random. That would pull most of the crime white folks are so afraid of out of their risk equation. They are not likely to be the victim of a crime committed by a black person.

So, the question remains- who should white people "be afraid of?"

My bets are on the white kid in a hoodie.

I totally agree with ugh.really? because one could argue that blacks have a higher percentage of criminals within their race and conclude that blacks are more criminalistic than whites but I think this is a weak argument. If one can't prove that race causes one to commit crimes then I don't think one could conclude with any certainty that blacks are any more criminalistic than any other race. I would also argue that since their has been documented proof of racial profiling like with the LAPD (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/03/lapd-accuses-officer-of-racial-profiling.html) then it would be easy to see why minorities like Hispanics and Blacks would have higher arrest rates, which would lead to higher charge rates, higher conviction rates, thus higher conviction rates.

As far as whether who whites should be afraid of, I would say other white people because whites are more likely to commit a random killing, and whites are more likely to kill another white just as blacks are more likely to kill another black. I do think that we need to have more conversations like this to bring into light these misconceptions involving race so that we can calm our fears and reduce tensions between all people in this world.

Below is my blog where I write about similar topics

I have never once made any such assertion. You are essentially arguing against a strawman. Cut that out, both of you.

Also it is a shame how statistically illiterate people are in an era where quantitative analysis is of paramount importance, but I digress.

In my opinion i honestly do thing Zimmerman is a racist and that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed because he was black

I probably be considered to suspect if Martin did actually attack Zimmerman it was more than likely antaganized. While Zimmerman's actions with using deadly force may be allowed, the conditions under which he used it seems suspiciously pre-meditated. Especially since the "suspicious" man was black in an region with a history of racism.

Here is a fact that increases the suspicion is that, "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." If one was being attacked as he claims the average person would not even remember that they were carrying a gun. Only a person intent on using it would even pull it out let alone fire a round.

Trayvon Martin's right of life was taken away and we will never know as the public, because he wasn't given his right to be in front of a court of law. Racism is against a person's rights therefore is Zimmerman did so, because of his race he took both Trayvon Martin's life and right to be not discriminated for his race as well as see a court of law.

I am glad to see we have psychics who know Zimmerman's exact motive and train of thought throughout this situation. I guess being a white man such as myself has become more dangerous than being black seeing as even Hispanics are now suspect of "WHITE on Black Crimes". It appears the lynch mob is out in full effect. You can't argue with a dumb ass and even if you could why would you?.. And honestly, the reason crimes committed by Darker toned individuals is so high is most likely because most police (Including African Americans), are afraid to pursue "Black" people in fear of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton showing up and turning it into a race issue. I am disgusted by the ignorance surrounding this article and Like-minded individuals.

in my opinion, i dont care what the laws say in the area where this event took place. no person be they white or black has the power to simply shoot and kill an unarmed man and get away with it scott free. i dont care what his excuse was, it is not ok. honestly after reading this i would definitely have to agree that zimmerman is a racist and that trayvon was killed because he was black.

I personally think that because Trayvon Martin was a young black male, with his hood over his head, walking around at night was the reason that Zimmerman thought he was suspicious. I wonder what Zimmerman would have done if it were a young white male who had his hood over his head....would the situation have ended up differently? I am not calling Zimmerman a racist, but I completely agree with what the author is saying when she talked about all the calls Zimmerman has made to the police in the last year, and how most of them were to report suspicious "black" individuals. If he were on look out for a neighborhood watch don't you think he would be looking out for anyone who is looking suspicious, or did he only really have it out for only African Americans?

Since, Trayvon Martin was a minority he received unequal treatment in the American criminal justice system. African Americans are treated more harshly than whites. Only 12 percent of the United States is African Americans. Though 43 percent of African Americans are inmates under the death penalty.

I tend to go with the writer that zimmerman killed Trayvon cos he was a black kid. The law and criminal statistics aside, is it strange that a 29 year old man who was attacked(as he claimed) by a 17 year old unarmed kid should pull out a gun and fire at the boy? Except it was a premeditated act. Imagine this, what can a 19 year old unarmed boy do to a 29 old in a fight? If a white kid wore a hoodie and moving around, it would have been cool but cos Trayvon was black, he looked like he was upto no good. And according to the police, Zimmerman was the one calling out for help. Hmmmm... zimmerman weights 180pounds and Trayvon weighed 150 or 160 pounds as the report said. What possibly could he have done to the killer to warrant the screaming? Truth be told, that was a helpless 19 year old kid screaming for help cos a 29 year old man had over powered him but poor Trayvon got no help until he was shot. The shooter stood over him to ensure that he died without help. How about, the advice to zimmerman not to follow late Trayvon? But he ignored it cos "he was a black and looked like he was upto no good" so, he (zimmerman) followed the boy and murdered him. How do we assert Trayvon's attack on zimmerman like he claimed? Cos the last time I checked, dead people don't talk!

I think it is weird how an incident like this can separate people and show other peoples reaction and belifes. I know a few people who are on one side of this and another side and I watch them argue see their relationship change because of this. It shows how people really are.

This has been helpful to me as I examine myself. Thank you for putting it together. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

I happened to watch a trending video of a concerned citizen filming a crucial situation of an unarmed black American man being pointed out of guns by cops. This concerned citizen also happens to have an unarmed ex-boyfriend being shot and killed by cops.

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