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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