Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Politics of Perception: Was Zimmerman racially profiled by the Sanford Police Department?

Lately, two different stories are popping up all over my Facebook news feed regularly: one about the tragic and unnecessary death of Trayvon Martin at the hands George Zimmerman: a civilian Neighborhood Watch member impersonating a law enforcement officer in my estimation; and the other about how pissed off a bunch of people on Twitter are to find out that Rue and a bunch of other characters described as dark skinned in the book "The Hunger Games" are being portrayed by African American actors in the movie.

A profile picture in a hoodie won't change the world but it does let  everyone know how I feel and who I represent.

These two things may seem unrelated: but in a sense, they are. In the case of Rue, a fictional character: multiple posters are suggesting anger and disgust over the fact that the girl is not only black in the movie but quite possibly intended as black by the author, they act as if a trick has been played upon them: one that has caused them to care about a girl whom they would have cared less about, or possibly not about at all if they had known she was black. In the case of Trayvon, a real child who died senselessly, people are busy stating the opposite: that they do care, and that it hurts them imagining something like this happening to their own child.

A friend of mine recently stated that the case of George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, should not be tried in the media. However, it is my position that it is the failure of the Sanford, Florida police department to take Mr. Zimmerman into custody and have the matter tried in a court of law that has lead to this situation of trial by social media. The evidence suggesting that Mr. Zimmerman himself may have racially profiled seventeen year old Trayvon Martin, while existent, is not nearly as damning as the myriad examples of handling by the Sanford Police Department that indicated racial bias.

And here is where there is a relationship between the fictional Rue and the handling of the Zimmerman shooting: it is in the politics of perception in racial bias. Just as some bigoted readers cared more about the fate of Rue when they *perceived* her as non-African, the handling of Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin seems to be tainted by the *perception* of the Sanford Police Department that George Zimmerman was a white man who shot a black youth.

The police report stated that Zimmerman was a white man.

Now, after the fact, Zimmerman's relatives have stated that his mother is Peruvian and that Zimmerman himself is a Latino man. Naturally, they are making these statements to defend Zimmerman himself and allegations that he engaged in racial profiling towards Trayvon Martin, or uttered a racial slur. My personal opinion, which is neither here nor there, is as follows: I believe Zimmerman did engage in racial profiling, I do not believe he uttered a racial slur. It's unclear what he said, but he's a 28 year old man, not an 82 year old man: "coon" is not a modern racial slur, I buy that Zimmerman may have said something else.

On the subject of racial profiling, however: one does not have to be white to racially profile. As a biracial American of African and Russian-Jewish heritage, who is lighter complected than my only sibling, I know and understand very well what it meant when I would go into a store with my darker skinned brother and be followed around by security guards who thought the black teenagers were there to steal from their store. I also noticed that non-white security guards including black ones were more likely to follow me when I was in a store with my brown skinned relatives than when I was walking around with my teenage pink-skinned relatives: and ironically, it was when I was with my cousin who is of Russian-Jewish and Irish heritage, that all of the teenage shoplifting went down. This is the nature of profiling: it's a decision that person who looks like X is up to no good, person who looks like Z looks innocent.

The problem with the "Stand Your Ground" laws is that they put the power to act upon irrational fears and subconscious prejudices in a lethal manner, with a gun. Let me be clear on what I am saying: If Zimmerman was prejudiced, he is not alone. If you think there aren't tons of racists around, go look at some Internet article comments: you will see lots and lots of race hate speech. Human beings have prejudices: we have laws to keep people from running rampant and acting upon these prejudices. Once you put guns into the hands of average Joe, or average George Zimmerman type dudes with wannabe cop fantasies running through their heads, you have a disastrous situation. You have a set up for tragedy.

The spread of these laws needs to stop.

Now: back to the subject of whether or not the Sanford Police racially profiled Zimmerman. Why do I say that he was? The police report listed Zimmerman as white. After this, the following occurred:

- Shooting Victim Treyvon Martin was drug tested
- Shooter George Zimmerman was neither drug nor alcohol tested
- Shooting Victim Treyvon Martin's cellphone was not used to contact his family
- Shooting Victim Treyvon Martin was allowed to sit in the morgue as a John Doe for 3 days
- Shooter George Zimmerman was not taken into custody
- A month later, Shooter George Zimmerman is not in custody
- A month later, the practices of the Sanford Police Department are under investigation

It is pure speculation to suggest that the Sanford Police Department would have handled things differently if Zimmerman had been perceived as Latino (his mother is Peruvian). So let's speculate:

Do you think that the Sanford Police Department's handling of the case was influenced by the perception that Zimmerman was a white man? Do you think they would have handled it differently if they though of him as Latino? Discuss. Comments are more than welcome, they are desired.


  1. Last night on the bus, there was a young black man in a hoodie talking to the driver. He mentioned that he was just down from Portland and had just gotten off probation.

    We figured that means we should have shot him.

    We didn't, because we were too busy laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Oh, and we don't generally carry guns around with us.

    I'm pretty white, almost glowy. It's hard not to appreciate how much I "get away with" because of that - I don't get sideways looks, I don't get shadowed in the department stores, and the best part - people feel more comfortable making racist jokes around me! People who swear up and down that they are not racist, or prejudiced in any way, but who *do* in fact profile based on appearance.

    I also notice that when I offer to help black customers in our store, they seem surprised. Like, wow, someone isn't assuming I'm pocketing stuff!

    I don't know what all this means, except that we have a long, long way to go. No matter how much we say we don't.

    1. Indeed... we do have a long way to go. Out here, a lot of people wear hoodies because it's cold, and rainy, and if you're like me, you're prone to ear infections. But any security guards or police that might have followed my brother anywhere in Northern Cali when we were teens are totally disinterested now that we're older. It's a race/gender/age combo.

  2. Wow - great piece - several response points come to mind at once!

    Ok - as far as the movie - I don't know the story Hunger Games, never read the book, nor have I seen the movie - but I've seen the weird stories about outrage that some characters in the movie were portrayed by black actors. I wonder if there was any intent here on the part of the directors. If so - I think it is an absolute stroke of genius. A social experiment - which clearly has proved out -- that people can get extremely angry, with something as simple as having their assumptions challenged. Amazing. Even more amazing, though, is that these modern Americans are so emotional - they don't even think to restrain their angry cries of outrage! Lol. It's unbelievable.

    When it comes to Trayvon Martin, firstly I say this -- there are facts undisputed by both sides (many of which you outline above) which are more than enough cause for a full and formal review of how the investigation was (mis)conducted, and are more than enough cause for an arrest and trial. There is little question in my mind that Zimmerman saw this kid as a threat because he is black. Why, I cannot say. But I do believe that to be true. Nor can I say why the Sanford P.D. failed so abysmally to do a proper investigation. What I do know is that - it is high time (past time) for higher level authorities to step in - state and federal level - which is happening. And I thank God for the attention this case is getting in the media (social media included) for a number of reasons -- (1) I firmly believe an arrest and trial is now imminent - and I know it wouldn't have happened without the show of outrage and media coverage. Zimmerman would have gone on (as he still is right now)to continue to be free, untried - and even to carry his weapon. (2)this is a conversation that needs to happen right now in this country - it is an amazing thing to see all manner of public figures wearing hoodies in solidarity against profiling, as well as people speaking out in the very halls of congress. (3) the gun law in Florida - and gun 'rights' in general - need serious and close scrutiny. To wit: "feeling" threatened by someone and shooting is an acceptable description now of self defense? -- are you kidding me?

    Again, great piece. We are not wrong, no matter how much Fox News and its Foxbot followers may say we are!! :)

    1. I agree with your three reasons. And as far as number 3 regarding "feeling threatened" goes, it occurred to me recently that if a bunch of women in Florida started popping caps into men who were leering at them "threateningly" they'd turn that law over quick, fast and in a hurry. "He was staring at my legs/breasts/butt, I thought he was going to rape me!" - bam. Yep. That'd be the end of that Stand Your Ground law.

  3. Wonderfully thought provoking,Sumiko. Thank you for taking the time to express your opinion and elict response from readers. I personally do believe that had Mr. Zimmerman been known to be of Latin decent from the beginning, the whole thing would have been handled and reported differently. It likely wouldn't have been as newsworthy.

    1. Thanks for taking out the time to respond here. I agree with you that the news have been less likely to report had Zimmerman known by the media to be of partially Peruvian heritage - for example, had been listed on the police report as Latino. The media just doesn't seem to find brown-on-black crime very newsworthy except where a very young child was harmed - we get those kind of reports out here where the victim was 4 or 5 years old. The Stand Your Ground law seems problematic to me. What people decide they are afraid of often involves a prejudice.