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Posted by on Apr 7, 2012 in Law, Society | 17 comments

Trayvon Martin Case Divides Nation By Racial Identity, Politics, Age, Gender

Polls about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case reveal the deep divide among Americans that many of us pretend does not exist. According to a Newsweek/Daily Beast poll, “just 19 percent of whites say that racism is a big problem in America, vs. 60 percent of blacks.”

For two weeks running, the Martin/Zimmerman case has been the most closely followed story in a weekly survey run by Pew. My hypothesis: it’s news because Zimmerman admitted to shooting and killing the unarmed Martin but hasn’t been arrested.

Although 4-in-10 adults think the news coverage is “about right” the same number think it has been “too much”, according to the Pew analysis. But how we feel about the news coverage is split along party lines and those of racial identity.

“Far more Republicans (56%) than Democrats (25%) say there has been too much coverage of Martin’s death,” according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press research. Forty-three percent of whites believe that there has been too much coverage; only 16 percent of blacks feel that way.

Gallup reports that more than twice as many black American adults as non-black Americans (52% v 19%) are following the story “very closely.” Not a surprise, the ratio reverses for “not following or not following closely,” with 4-in-10 non-black adults in this self-classification.

More than twice as many black American adults as non-black Americans (72% v 31%) believe race was a “major factor” in the shooting, according to Gallup. More than twice as many black American adults as non-black Americans (73% v 35%) believe George Zimmerman would have been arrested had Trayvon Martin been white. But 52% of whites believe race played no part in the shooting.

Changing the surveying organization does not change the picture. The Newsweek/Daily Beast poll reveals a split among whites: 35% think it was “racially motivated;” 30% believe it was “self-defense;” and 35% “are not sure. African-Americans, however, are convinced it was racially motivated (80% vs. 2%).”

Here’s an example of the split, from Sanford:

“I don’t see it as a racial thing,” says [Mark] Carli. “They’ve spun it to be a racial thing. It’s just unfortunate … the NAACP has had an office in this town since the 1960s. They’ve been active in this town, and never in a good way.”


There was the time in the late 1970s when the city responded to an order to desegregate a swimming pool by filling the pool in—it would remain segregated, or nobody would use it. In 2006, 16-year-old Travares McGill was shot three times by a security guard. The final bullet went through McGill’s back and into his heart. The guard lied about it, and wasn’t charged right away. In 2010, a police officer’s son named Justin Collison punched a homeless man and didn’t even get cuffed. But at least there the city got a new police chief, and at least Collison was eventually charged.

The divide extends along other demographics, although not as starkly (except for political orientation). According to research from the Christian Science Monitor, who believes that race has played a major role in this case?

  • “Younger respondents” (66%) versus “middle age” (43%)
  • Women (48%) versus men (39%)
  • “Modest income” (51%) versus “wealthy” (37%)
  • Democrats (64%) versus Republicans (32%)

What’s missing in these polls is a discussion of what it means to be “white.” NPR addressed that on Thursday (emphasis added):

We thought that question – who exactly is white and why are some people described as white or black or brown deserved an answer. So we decided to call Jean Halley to find out. She’s a sociologist from Wagner College in New York. She’s also one of the co-authors of the textbook “Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race.”


HALLEY: I guess I’d like to start with noting that race is not a biological reality. It’s a social reality. We really understand that now. I think that in the past the myth was this is something rooted in our genes, and now we understand that race is something rooted in our cultures.

Whiteness is something that’s a negative. It means not being of color. There’s really almost no other definition for it. It’s been something, you know, that’s shifted. Different people have been included in whiteness over the years and ultimately the only thing that’s the real component of whiteness is having privilege. It’s racial privilege, so I don’t think there is racial privilege without whiteness in the United States, and there’s not whiteness without racial privilege.

But who has been included in being white has shifted and changed, so you know, in the potato famine years in the mid-1800s, my family came – Irish Catholics from Ireland – and we weren’t white. In fact, you know, Irish Catholics and African-Americans commonly lived together and had families together and were even compared to one another.


MARTIN: OK. Finally, before we let you go, you’ve said elsewhere that you believe that white privilege is the main issue in the Trayvon Martin death. How so?

HALLEY: Well, on the one side I think the Trayvon Martin death is a profound example of racism in a very racist country, the United States, and I think that’s what his death was. I think on the other side of racism, there’s always privilege for white people.

And so, for example, in my case, I have the privilege of not having to be afraid for my child. My boy – like Trayvon, my boy walks around in a hoodie. He carries candy. He goes in any number of neighborhoods in New York City. Our neighborhood is predominantly African-American. He feels perfectly safe. He can walk around in affluent white neighborhoods and feel perfectly safe. It’s never occurred to me to worry about what he wears or that he’s in danger in any of those neighborhoods.

Not only do I not have to worry about it, I don’t even have to know that it’s an issue for someone else, and that’s white privilege.

What’s also missing: someone to point out the lack of true integration in America (emphasis added):

In the racial demography of established communities that impacts everyday life, a majority of blacks will spend much more of their time interacting with whites than the majority of whites spend interacting with blacks. And more blacks work, shop and travel with large numbers of whites, where few whites do the same with larger numbers of blacks. Whites very much live separate lives from blacks and from other Americans of color. This is a systemic relationship most of us are unaware exists.

There is also the well-known quote that the most segregated hour in America is on Sunday morning, with whites in their churches and blacks attending their church. It is this type of separation that lends itself even to the dilemma of naming a street after Dr. King. If it is located wholly within a black community, there is no problem. As it crosses over to white neighborhoods, whites get nervous. They fear the linkage of the name of the most famous black icon in America tied to their neighborhood.

Research emphasizes that familiarity breeds acceptance. For example, from CNN (pdf):

Children who have frequent contact with other children from different racial backgrounds in their school environment view cross-race interactions more positively, are more likely to believe that cross-race friendships are possible, and expect that parents will approve of cross-race friendships, when compared with children who do not experience this type of interracial contact.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides free teaching kits to help teachers and parents encourage “positive interactions and [facilitate] messages about making friends with others from different racial backgrounds (pdf).”


None of this surprises me but it saddens me to no end.

I wish that someone would also conduct a survey along geographic lines. I’m guessing that blacks and whites in southern red states have even more vastly differing views.

And I worry about what will happen if the special prosecutor decides not to charge Zimmerman.

Survey Methodology

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Copyright 2012 The Moderate Voice
  • StockBoyLA

    My interpretation in reading these polls (thanks, Kathy) that the demographic of people who don’t think there is a race element to this and who do believe that there is too much coverage…. are those people who have never experienced discrimination…. rich white guys. The further away from this demographic you go the more likely you are to believe that there is a race element to this and the more likely you believe that there is not too much coverage here. The thing about polls is that they reflect a person’s own experiences. So someone who has never experienced discrimination is unlikely to see it when it happens. And of course those who do regularly experience discrimination may see it even if it does not exist, since that is how their world has been defined.

  • kafantaris

    It is time that we look at the Trayvon Martin killing for what it is — a criminal homicide, only incidental to race. One cannot draw a much different conclusion by listening to the cries for help heard in the recorded 911 calls.
    Even without them, however, it seems improbable that a confident, stocky-build man, with a gun in his holster, would need to beg for help — notwithstanding the claims of Zimmerman, his father and his brother. Our understanding of human nature and common sense tells us that such cries would come from someone who is severely threatened and acutely aware of his imminent death.
    Any doubts of this are removed by merely listening to those multiple “help, help” pleas loud enough to be picked up during the 911calls. Aside from their heart-wrenching intensity, we also note that these cries go on for over a minute. Was Zimmerman telling Martin during that time that he was about to pull the trigger? Why else would Martin need to plead for help with such desperation?
    If Zimmerman was threatening to shoot Martin in those two minutes before we hear the shot, what we have then is a cold blooded murder – and by one clever enough to now use our racial divide to get away with it. We should see through this tactic and not let him do so. Not only because such defense would further divide us, but also because an unrepentant criminal would get away with murder.

  • rudi

    It’s all about race. While Sanford and the site of the killing are above average in crime rate, Zimmerman and his neighbor(Frank Taaffe) profiled young black males. This complex is 20% black.

    Taaffe denied that he told the New York Times that burglaries were done by “Trayvon-like dudes with their pants down.”

    “I never said that,” he said. “I never used that term.”

    But on CNN, Taaffe followed up the denial of an incendiary comment with another one.

    When asked if, based on the string of robberies, Zimmerman should have been profiling Trayvon Martin the night of the shooting, Taaffe said: “There’s an old saying, ‘If you plant corn, you get corn,'”

    “It is what it is,” he added. “I would go on record by stating that of the eight prior burglaries in the 15 months prior to the Trayvon Martin shooting, all of the perpetrators were young black males.”
    Whites aren’t abusing “Hillbilly Heroin” and committing crimes to pay for their addiction.

  • rudi

    From LGF, the New Black panthers aren’t patrolling Sanford, it’s neo-Nazis saving whites from the coming riots.

  • dduck

    “what we have then is a cold blooded murder –”
    With this kind of attitude, absent of any proof is an example of one “side’s” idea of facts. The “defenders” of Zimmerman” use their own version of facts.
    The real deal on facts may come out with the ongoing investigation.
    No matter how many rush to judgement cases there are, we still seem to do it.

  • RP

    Race is an issue in this case. Race is an issue all across America. And income levels do play a part in how one views racial issues as the farther from the inner city and poor America one lives, the less one knows what goes on.

    But in this case, I also beleive that the black leaders have done little to calm the issue of race and have done much to promote racial tensions. MLK worked to promote white, brown, red and black America working and living as one, not the divisive promotions brought by Sharpton and Jackson for their own self promotion.

    In reading some of the above, it is also apparent that information provided by the media is being used to convict Zimmerman before all the facts are in. You see pictures of a small black kid, but some reports are Martin played football and outweighed Zimmerman. There are reports that Martin was yelling for help, but it is reported that eye witnesses have reported that there was a guy in a white shirt on top of another and beating him. The report also states Martin was a light coloered hoody and Zimmerman a darker t-shirt. Other conflicting reports are also being reported.

    But once again in an incident impacted by race, individuals are being convicted before all the “real” facts are known. And when they are known, I doubt pages of reporting and hours of coverage will be provided by the media as that will not be a story.

  • dduck

    RP said: “But in this case, I also beleive that the black leaders have done little to calm the issue of race and have done much to promote racial tensions. ”

    Remember Rahm Emanuel’s advice: never let a crisis go to waste. By using this killing as an example of racial injustice/you name it, the people shouting for justice are advancing their cause. No doubt there is racism and profiling going on, so why not point it out. Seems logical, until you get people posting bounties and posting the Zimmerman address (I notice Roseanne Barr, kinda got a pass on that; I guess because she is white, huh).

    Ghandi an MLK, knew the differnce.

  • zephyr

    The poll numbers don’t surprise me a bit and StockBoy did a good job of explaining them. The people who most want to pretend race isn’t an issue are those who are least effected by it. If Trayvon had been white he’d still be alive (anyone who is willing to be honest knows this). If that doesn’t make this case about race I don’t know what does. We should be beyond all this by now, but despite all the courage and vision of people like Martin Luther King and others, we are in many ways more divided than ever.

  • dduck

    Z, we don’t know what happened, that is the point. One scenario is that the person shot was in a confrontation with the person who did the shooting. Is it beyond the realm of possibility that a white kid could have had that confrontation with the same result. Careful, you may be accused of being a racist if you say it couldn’t be the same.
    A tough white or Hispanic kid from the Bronx might want to kick the “follower’s” ass.

  • StockBoyLA

    “A tough white or Hispanic kid from the Bronx might want to kick the “follower’s” ass.”

    We all approach a potentially harmful situation in a manner which we think will gain resolution. In my case if someone follows me I’d call 911 because I think the cops will take care of it. I was raised to believe the cops are there to protect people.

    However if someone is raised in the Bronx (or elsewhere) where the cops hassle you, and you’ve learned to fight your way out of fights, then you’ll probably beat the crap out of someone you feel threatened by. If you thought the police could help, you’d call them. But you more than likely know the police will haul you to jail or give you a hard time, or not even respond if you call them over someone following you.

    So of course, dduck, it is possible that Zimmerman may have stalked and killed a white or Hispanic kid for no other reason than Zimmerman didn’t like the look of the kid. But he could have treated the situation differently. I think at one point in time while talking with 911 Zimmerman mutters something about “they always get away with things”…. I think that’s key… who is the “they” he was referring to? Kids in general? Black kids? And if he was referring to kids in general, then does he call the police every time he sees a kid walking the street? I believe (though I am keeping an open mind) that Zimmerman saw a kid who he felt did not belong there. I suspect that Zimmerman felt the kid was up to no good because he was black.

    At any rate even if there is no racial element in Zimmerman’s shooting of an unarmed black kid going home from the store one evening, there is certainly a racial element in the local police’s handling of the situation. They took Zimmerman’s word that he acted in self-defense against a black kid who was attacking him and let him go free. I bet if I (a middle-aged upper middle class white guy) had been laying dead on the street and Zimmerman claimed self defense, the police would have done a proper investigation and charged him. But then again I doubt that Zimmerman would have thought I was causing problems as he spied on people walking down the street. Isn’t there some saying that goes something like, “If you’re looking for trouble it will find you”? That’s what Zimmerman was doing…. looking for trouble. His whole life (from what I can tell) seemed to be about looking for trouble and assuming the worst in people. Well trouble found him in a big way.

  • StockBoyLA

    Thanks, Zeph.

  • zephyr

    Speaking of looking for trouble… in a lighter vein (but then again, maybe not):

    “It was the short men that caused all the trouble in the world.” ? Ian Fleming

  • dduck

    Stock, I stand by my fictional version and you will stand by yours.

  • Rcoutme

    I think, dduck, that the reason that they think this is racial is because if it weren’t, there would not be a black kid lying on the sidewalk dead. This is how it would go:

    1) If Zimmerman had seen someone of any other race, would he have stalked that person?

    2) If Trayvon had been a white kid, would the police have done more investigation than they did (before the outrage)?

    3) Would there have been more outrage earlier if the police acted similarly if, say, a white, 17-year-old girl lay dead?

    4) Would conservatives have been defending (in the press, etc.) a black man who had killed a white teen in similar circumstance?

    If the answer to all four questions above is not, “Without a doubt, YES!” then this is a racial issue.

    Just because the issue is racial, does not mean that the potential crime(s) was racially motivated. There is clearly a disconnect between people with dark skin and those without. I am reminded of the Rodney King beatings. A black comedian summed up the situation perfectly (and in a funny manner) to a (predominantly) black audience.

    “You know it was only white people who were shocked by that footage. Hell, when I first saw it, I thought it was just another Timex commercial.” Queue laughter.

    For those too young to remember, Timex used to have all sorts of over-the-top commercials about one of their watches (often on people) going through nearly cartoonish damage. The catch phrase was, “Timex! It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

  • dduck

    RC, thinking is not the same as knowing.
    Keep on thinking and as more facts come in you can make more concrete conclusions. But, a trial may bring out even more facts and the jury gets to judge it all.

  • dduck

    TMV spammed, above.

  • lopan017

    It’s a shame to have laws like this on the books, they strongarm law inforcement.

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