Trayvon Martin was a seventeen-year-old African American teenager. On the evening of February 26, 2012, he was visiting with his father and his father’s fiancée in the Sanford, Florida multi-ethnic gated community where his father’s fiancée lived. Trayvon Martin left his home on foot to buy a snack from a nearby convenience store. As he was returning, George Zimmerman, a man of mixed white and Hispanic heritage, and the community’s neighborhood watch program coordinator, noticed him. In light of a recent rash of break-ins, Zimmerman called the police to report a person acting suspiciously, which he had done on many other occasions. The 911 operator told Zimmerman not to follow the teen, but soon after Zimmerman and Martin had a physical confrontation. According to Zimmerman, Martin attacked him, and in the ensuing scuffle Martin was shot and killed (CNN Library, 2014).
A public outcry followed Martin’s death. There were allegations of —the use by law enforcement of race alone to determine whether to stop and detain someone—a national discussion about “Stand Your Ground Laws,” and a failed lawsuit in which Zimmerman accused NBC of airing an edited version of the 911 call that made him appear racist. Zimmerman was not arrested until April 11, when he was charged with second-degree murder by special prosecutor Angela Corey. In the ensuing trial, he was found not guilty (CNN Library 2014).
The shooting, the public response, and the trial that followed offer a snapshot of the sociology of race. Do you think race played a role in Martin’s death or in the public reaction to it? Do you think race had any influence on the initial decision not to arrest Zimmerman, or on his later acquittal? Does society fear black men, leading to racial profiling at an institutional level? What about the role of the media? Was there a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion? If you were a member of the jury, would you have convicted George Zimmerman (Conerly, et. al., 2021).
It’s hard to believe a decade has passed since Trayvon Martin’s tragic death. What has happened since then? Where do we stand more than 65 years after Ms. Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride helped to catalyze the civil rights movement and bring attention to racial inequalities in the US? In answering these questions, this chapter discusses the changing nature of racial and ethnic prejudice and inequality in the United States but also documents their continuing importance for American society, as the tragic story that began this chapter signifies. We begin our discussion of the present with a brief look back to the past.
Trayvon Martin’s father Tracy Martin and his mother Sabrina Fulton at the Union Square protest against Trayvon’s shooting death. David Shankbone – Creative Commons
History of Race in the U.S.
Race and ethnicity have torn at the fabric of American society ever since the time of Christopher Columbus, when at least 1 million Native Americans were thought to have populated what would become the United States. By 1900, their numbers had dwindled to about 240,000, as hundreds of thousands were either killed by white settlers and U.S. troops, died from disease contracted from people with European backgrounds or were killed in inter-tribal conflict. Scholars have said that this mass killing of Native Americans amounted to genocide (Wilson, 1999).
African Americans obviously also have a history of maltreatment that began during the colonial period, when Africans were forcibly transported from their homelands to be sold and abused as slaves in the Americas. During the 1830’s, white mobs attacked African Americans in cities throughout the nation, including Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. This violence led Abraham Lincoln to lament about “savage mobs” and their “increasing disregard for law which pervades the country” (Feldberg, 1980, p. 4). The mob violence stemmed from a “deep-seated racial prejudice… in which whites saw blacks as ‘something less than human’” (Brown, 1975, p. 206) and continued well into the 20th century, when whites attacked African Americans in many cities, with at least seven anti-black riots occurring in 1919 alone that left dozens dead. Meanwhile, an era of Jim Crow racism in the South (1870’s – 1960’s) led to the lynching of thousands of African Americans and segregation in all facets of life (Litwack, 2009).
State and local governments, along with the police and judicial system, worked to establish and enforce a separate and unequal society, denying rights to African Americans, keeping them in a subordinate position in the post-Civil War U.S. Along with these institutional means of subordination, the practice and threat of community-based violence, were also effective tools of social control, sowing terror and denying African Americans their rights and freedom. Between 1882 and 1968, almost 5,000 African Americans were lynched in the U.S. (NAACP, 2021). Lynchings typically involved the criminal accusation and arrest of an individual or group of African Americans, followed by a mob assembling and seizing the individual or group, who would then be murdered. It was common for lynchings to be attended by many members of the white community and the atmosphere to be celebratory, with souvenir postcards sold commemorating the lynching (NAACP, 2021).
In addition, terror and fear were sowed and violence was enacted by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK, founded following the Civil War in 1865 by Confederate veterans, had spread to almost every state in the South by 1870. They opposed reconstruction policies intended to equalize African American political and economic power, using terror tactics in an attempt to re-establish white supremacy.
The effectiveness of terror tactics as a means of social control was explained by Richard Wright in his autobiography, Black Boy. Wright wrote,
The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew (1945).
If you would like to hear Ms. Holiday’s performance of this song, visit: Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday at the Club Bali, Washington – Wikimedia Commons
In addition to Wright’s memoir, poetry and song reflected the harsh reality of African American life in the U.S. Inspired by a photograph of a lynching, school teacher Abel Meeropol (under the pseudonym, Lewis Allen), wrote the poem “Bitter Fruit” in 1937. The poem was adapted into a song titled, “Strange Fruit,” and popularized by jazz singer Billie Holiday, shown above. The poem reads:
Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulging eyes and twisted mouth, The scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.
In Chapter 6, we discussed methods of social control, including obedience to authority, peer group conformity, the use of sanctions and socialization. How does the discussion above and the use of fear and terror in the south during the reconstruction and Jim Crow periods fit within this social control framework?
African Americans were not the only targets of native-born white mobs back then (Dinnerstein & Reimers, 2009). As immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, Mexico, and Asia came to the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they, too, were beaten, denied jobs, and otherwise mistreated. During the 1850s, mobs beat and sometimes killed Catholics in cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans, as nativism rose in response to increases in immigration of Catholics from Ireland, Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe. Similarly, during the 1870s, whites rioted against Chinese immigrants in California and other states. In states across the Southwest, countless people of Mexican descent were attacked and several hundred were lynched during the same period (Carrigan and Clive Webb, 2003). Not surprisingly, scholars have written about U.S. racial and ethnic prejudice ever since the period of slavery. In 1835, the great social observer Alexis de Tocqueville (1835/1994) despaired that whites’ prejudice would make it impossible for them to live in harmony with African Americans. Decades later, W. E. B. Du Bois (1903/1968, p. vii), one of the first sociologists to study race observed in 1903 that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” and cited example after example of economic, social and legal discrimination against African Americans.
Nazi racism in the 1930s and 1940s helped awaken Americans to the evils of prejudice in their own country. As WWII ended, after fighting against fascism in Europe and Asia, African American and Japanese American soldiers returned home to a segregated American society and their families who had been interned in relocation camps during the war, respectively.
Against this backdrop, a monumental two-volume work by Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal (1944) attracted much attention when it was published. The book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, documented the various forms of discrimination facing blacks at the time. The “dilemma” referred to in the book’s title was the conflict between the American democratic values of egalitarianism, liberty and justice for all and the harsh reality of prejudice, discrimination, and lack of equal opportunity.
Despite finding ample evidence of extreme inequality, Myrdal expressed optimism that integration and peace were feasible. However, the system of legal segregation was not dismantled until the civil rights movement won its major victories in the 1950’s and 1960s. Even after segregation ended, improvement in other areas was slow. Thus in 1968, the so-called Kerner Commission (1968, p. 1), appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in response to urban riots, warned in a famous statement, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Despite this warning, and despite the civil rights movement’s successes, 30 years later writer David K. Shipler (1997, p. 10) felt compelled to observe that there is “no more intractable, pervasive issue than race” and that when it comes to race, we are “a country of strangers.” Sociologists and other social scientists have warned since then that the conditions of people of color have actually been worsening (Massey, 2007; W. J. Wilson, 2009). Despite the historic elections of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 and 2012 and Kamala Harris to the office of Vice President in 2020, race and ethnicity remain an “intractable, pervasive issue.” Indeed, it would be accurate to say, to paraphrase Du Bois, that “the problem of the 21st century is the problem of the color line.” Evidence of this continuing problem appears in much of the remainder of this chapter.
Think Like a Sociologist
In chapter 6, we learned about a few different sociological perspectives on deviance. Recall that from the Functionalist Perspective, “deviance serves a purpose by clarifying norms, strengthening social bonds among people reacting to deviance and deviance can lead to positive social change.” Consider the above story about Trayvon Martin’s death. Many people claim that the circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death sparked a global movement.
Can you name a few instances related to the story that might be considered deviance? How could those instances of deviance lead to clarifying norms or strengthening group bonds?
Can you think of any social movements that started with Trayvon Martin’s death, and can you identify any positive social changes that may have come out of reactions to his death?
Section 9.1 References
Brown, R. M. (1975). Strain of violence: Historical studies of American violence and vigilantism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Carrigan, W. D. and C. Webb. (2003). The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928. Journal of Social History, 37(2), 411-438.
CNN. (2014, February 17). Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts/index.html.
Dinnerstein, L. and D. M. Reimers. (2009). Ethnic Americans: A history of immigration. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1968). The souls of black folk. New York, NY: Fawcett World Library. (Original work published 1903).
Feldberg, M. (1980). The turbulent era: Riot and disorder in Jacksonian America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Kerner Commission. (1968). Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Litwack, L. F. (2009). How free is free? The long death of Jim Crow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Massey, D. S. (2007). Categorically unequal: The American stratification system. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Myrdal, G. (1944). An American dilemma: The Negro problem and modern democracy. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers.
NAACP. (2021). History of Lynching in America. Retrieved from https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/history-lynching-america.
Shipler, D. K. (1997). A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America. New York, NY: Knopf.
Tocqueville, A. (1994). Democracy in America. New York, NY: Knopf. (Original work published 1835).
Wilson, J. (1999). The Earth Shall Weep: A history of Native America. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Wilson, W. J. (2009). Toward a framework for understanding forces that contribute to or reinforce racial inequality. Race and Social Problems, 1, 3–11.
Wright, R. (1945). Black Boy: A record of childhood and youth. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers Publishers
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Billie Holiday. (2011, December 22). Strange Fruit- HD. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Web007rzSOI.
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Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Stayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Tommy Sadler, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones. (2015). Introduction to Sociology 2E. OpenStax. Houston, TX. License: CC BY 4.0. License Terms: Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-2e/pages/1-introduction-to-sociology.
Saylor Foundation. (2015). Social Problems: Continuity and Change. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. License Terms: Access for free at https://saylordotorg.github.io/text_social-problems-continuity-and-change/.
the use by law enforcement of race alone to determine whether to stop and detain someone