The prosecution in the trial of George Zimmerman said repeatedly that the trial was not about race. Zimmerman's defence disagreed: It was about race, they argued repeatedly, and Trayvon Martin was guilty…of being black. He caused his own death, didn't he? That's what Zimmerman's lawyer Mark O'Mara urged his own mother to admit on the stand. And it wasn't just a bizarre aberration. It was the heart of Zimmerman's defence to put Trayvon Martin on trial instead – and to do it, essentially, for the same reason that Zimmerman targeted him in the first place: because he was black.
Of course, murder defences often try to put the victim on trial, regardless of who they are. But when they are black in America, their race inevitably plays a role – it just requires a bit more subtlety than it used to…but not a whole lot. And so we got a neighbor called to testify that a black man burgled her house. Why was that relevant? What was she doing there, testifying in a totally unrelated trial?
A tweet from The Nation magazine explained it perfectly: "White supremacy: the idea that some black men must be killed with impunity to keep society at large safe."
The logic of white supremacy perfectly explained why that neighbor was allowed to testify. The logic of white supremacy perfectly explained why Trayvon Martin had to die. And the logic of white supremacy perfectly explained why Zimmerman had to get away with it.
Many things have changed in America over the past 50 years. The most popular woman in America is the black First Lady, for gosh sakes! But, as the Zimmerman verdict showed, the logic of white supremacy remains perfectly intact – and keeping that logic in mind can be enormously helpful in not getting distracted by extraneous details.
White supremacy remains relevant
Americans talk a good deal about race and racism, but not so much about white supremacy. One reason is that getting rid of the worst forms of old-fashioned white racism has made it easy for most white people to think racism has nothing to do with them. "I'm not a racist," they'll say, without even thinking about it. "I treat everyone the same." However, research into implicit bias shows that most people have unconscious biases they know nothing about: bias doesn't have to mean either animus, or intent.
What's more, field surveys have repeatedly shown that blacks are rejected far more than equally-qualified whites, whether for job interviews or apartment rentals. In one study, whites were offered jobs at about twice the rate of blacks, and whites with a prison record were treated as well as blacks with a clean record.
Beyond that level of discrimination, we encounter more dire impacts. Black and white drug use is virtually identical, for example, but the war on drugs is disproportionately a war on blacks, with more blacks stopped for random searches, more arrested for possession, more arrestees sent to trial, and more of those tried sent to prison.
At every single step of the way, blacks are treated more harshly than whites. And in many states, they lose the right to vote as well – long after they've paid the price of years in prison and on parole.
What's happening in America is not just some random mish-mash of racial and post-racial attitudes. There are massive historical and structural forces at work. Individual attitudes matter, of course, but they are only one facet of a much more complicated story – a story whose scope and essence is much more readily grasped through the lens of white supremacy, a system of racial group dominance, rather than racism, which most folks conceive of primarily or entirely in terms of conscious individual attitudes.
During the GOP primary, I wrote a column discussing the fundamental tenets of colourblind racism, in which "the central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpreting information".
While colour-blind racism goes a long way towards explaining the perplexing, often ambiguous racial situation in America today, it is not the whole story. In the 1990s, two social scientists, James Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, developed a comprehensive theory of how more or less stratified societies maintain themselves, summarized in their 2001 book, Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression.
Social dominance theory
White supremacy is a form of social dominance, but social dominance theory (SDT) is much more general. It explains the maintenance of group dominance by men over women, elders over youth and arbitrarily defined socially dominant groups over arbitrarily defined socially subordinate groups – groups defined in terms of race, ethnicity, religion and cultural identity more generally.
SDT explains the general mechanisms of how institutions, individual attitudes and legitimating social mythology interact with one another to perpetuate and reproduce group dominance. By highlighting general mechanisms, it enables us to see beyond the specifics in any one specific historical example.
The major research focus in developing SDT was on personal attitudes about group relationships, collectively known as "social dominance orientation" [SDO]. But the theory itself is far more comprehensive, since it includes inputs that tend to influence SDO, and outputs in terms of beliefs, which in turn play out in the realm of "legitimating myths" which tend either to enhance or attenuate the hierarchical tendencies of a society. They do that via three main channels: individual discrimination, institutional discrimination, and behavioral asymmetry (the tendency of subordinate groups to engage in disproportionately more self-damaging behavior).
Colourblind racism is an example of a legitimating myth. Social dominance theory provides a perspective for understanding how legitimating myths can change over time, and yet still be sustained by similar attitudinal forces, with similar outcomes as well.There is obvious change from 50 or 60 years ago, but there are persistent similarities as well, and the systematic integration of all the parts of SDT helps to explain that persistence – with the legitimating mythology of colourblind racism playing a crucial role in the middle of it all.
But colourblind racism isn't acting alone. It's just one part of the picture. In a 2009 presentation, "Toward a Transformative Dialogue On Race", Tom Rudd, a senior researcher at the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, speaks of "Identifying conditions, processes, practices, policies, ideologies, and interactions that lead to racial inequality" and identifies five of them:
- Individual racial animus
- Implicit Bias ("symbolic racism")
- Colourblind racism
- Institutional racism
- Structural Racialization
These can all be readily understood from the perspective of social dominance theory: The first two manifest predominately as attitudes related to SDO, colourblind racism manifests predominately in the realm of legitimating myths, and the last two manifest predominately in the realm of social/institutional practices, with institutional racism focused on individual institutions, and structural racialization dealing with multiple interacting structures.
The vast majority of how all this works is superficially invisible to the untrained – particularly the eyes of those in dominant groups who never directly experience the harms involved. The ideology of colourblind racism helps to hide things, of course. But so does the very nature of how institutional discrimination works, not to mention the unconscious nature of implicit bias.
So it can even be quite baffling for those who are being harmed. Did that apartment you just went to look at really just go off the market a few minutes before you walked in to see it? Or did they not like the colour of your skin? Without further digging, you can never really be sure. And being too sensitive to all possible such examples – well, that can drive anyone crazy, or to drink, or to some other form of "behavioral asymmetry".
This might all seem quite abstract – unless, of course, it's happening to you. And if you're black, brown, yellow or red in the US, if you're a woman or if you're gay, or not a Christian, or if you're still a student or student-aged – then maybe it's not the least bit abstract at all. It can happen to you at any time – out of the blue. Just like it did to Trayvon Martin. Just because it's harder to see the lurking racial harms around us, doesn't make them any less real. It only makes them more dangerous, coming out of nowhere, doing something you'd never expect.
Of course, that's how George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin. That's how it's always been with white supremacy: what it's always been most afraid of is some form of mirroring back to it the evil that it does to others. "These a–holes. They always get away," Zimmerman said as he was stalking Trayvon Martin. On Saturday, the jury proved him right.
But it's not just Zimmerman. It's most of us. In 2011, researchers at Tufts University and Harvard Business School reported that whites now think that they are more discriminated against than blacks. Drawing on a nationwide sample of 208 blacks and 209 whites, they asked each participant to indicate the extent to which they felt blacks and whites were targets of discrimination by decade from the 1950s to the 2000s, using a scale of 1 ("not at all") to 10 ("very much").
Blacks and whites perceived discrimination relatively similarly in the 1950s, Blacks rated anti-black bias at almost 10, while whites rated it at just over 9, with ratings of anti-white bias almost a mirror image. But perceptions diverged increasingly with each passing decade, until finally whites rated anti-white bias in the 2000s at more than 4.5, compared to anti-back bias more than a full point lower. Blacks, in contrast, rated anti-black bias at 6, anti-white bias at just under 2.
"Our results revealed that Whites see racism in zero-sum terms," the researchers wrote. "For White respondents, ratings of bias against Whites and Blacks were negatively and significantly correlated for each decade."
That is the world as George Zimmerman and his lawyers see it. The mere fact that he was ever even charged was itself an example of racial bias. His lawyer even claimed that "If George Zimmerman was black, he never would have been charged with a crime."
But the real world is nothing like that. A statistical analysis for PBS's Frontline last year found that whites were far more likely to succeed with claims of justifiable homicide when their victim was black – almost 2.5 times more likely, in fact – while blacks killing whites were more than 50% less likely to succeed. What's more, in "stand your ground" states like Florida the ratio favoring whites who kill blacks jumps to over 3.5 times.
Florida, it turns out, was the perfect place for Zimmerman to go out hunting. And now he's free to kill again.
Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he's worked since 2002. He's also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.