Sociology Focus
Author: Nathan Palmer

We Live in Many Americas

The Internet exploded Saturday night when George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder. Social media became a battle ground for people on both sides of the issue. For many, Zimmerman’s acquittal is further evidence that the legal justice system is biased against people of color. To his supporters, Zimmerman was persecuted because he was the victim of a “politically correct” racially motivated witch hunt. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses his experiences as a white man and the reaction to the Zimmerman case to invite you to think about how your race affects your perceptions of the world.

Saturday was a hard night to be on social media once George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin[1]. Scrolling through my social media feeds I saw such starkly different responses to the verdict. A tweet of outrage sat above one of elation. A status update praising the jurors for their decision was followed by another decrying the miscarriage of justice. Many of the posts I read argued that this verdict was another example of how racially biased the criminal justice system is. Others argued that this whole thing was just an example of what one of my friend’s friends called “mass reverse discrimination”.

As I laid down for bed I was an emotional mess. Not able to sleep, I turned on my phone and read one last Facebook post from an African American friend of mine:

“We live in many Americas. Mine doesn’t look like yours.”[2]

That was it. That was what I wanted to tell you. I closed my eyes knowing I was going to write about how our varied social locations create many world views and many Americas.

Social Location & Worldview in a Nutshell

Who you are affects how you experience and come to understand the world around you. That’s the gist of what sociologists are trying to communicate when we discuss social location and worldview. Your Social Location is the collection of social demographics (race, economic class, gender, education, sexual orientation, etc.) and how those relate to the rest of your community. If you are one of many in your community (for instance a heterosexual person) you are treated differently than if your social location is more uncommon (i.e. you are a social minority). Your Worldview can be thought of as the assumptions and biases that shape the way you come to understand the world around you. Your worldview comes largely from your experiences.

Race & The Legal Justice System

There is fairly ample evidence to suggest that people of color and African Americans in particular are more likely to be targeted by police, prosecuted more often, punished more severely when found guilty.[3] For instance let’s look at the War on Drugs. Despite the evidence that suggests drug use is remarkably similar across all racial ethnic groups (see for instance), people of color and specifically African Americans are imprisoned at much higher rates for all drug related offenses.[4] In 7 states African Americans represent over 80% of all drugs arrests, which is particularly remarkable in Illinois, New Jersey, and North Carolina where the Black population represents only 15%, 15%, and 22% of the states total population respectively. If 15% of the population accounts for over 80% of the arrests and there isn’t a huge difference in drug use, then what are we left to conclude other than racial bias in the criminal justice system?

Elsewhere, the controversial “Stop & Frisk” program in New York City allows police to stop and search anyone for any reason at anytime. However, in 2012 of the over 500,000 people searched through the program 87% were Black or Latino. Similarly Arizona law SB 1070 allows police to stop and arrest anyone they think looks like an illegal immigrant (which begs the question, what does an illegal immigrant look like exactly?).

Many people were outraged by the similarities between the Zimmerman case and another case involving an African American woman who was found guilty in Florida for firing warning shots in the air to defend herself against her allegedly abusive husband. She used the “stand your ground” defense and shot no one, but was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in jail. I could go on, but in the interest of time let me just say that, these are just a few of the many examples of how the criminal justice system treats whites differently than their counterparts of color.

White Privilege & The One Reality Myth

When I was a much younger man, I would have argued that there was only one police force and only one legal justice system, so how can there be more than one experience? I would have assumed that my experience with the police was the same experience that everyone had regardless if they are rich, poor, white, black, brown, or otherwise. Put another way, I would have argued there was only one reality and, as the evidence we just discussed shows, I would have been wrong.

My social location as a white man gave me access to only a small (and privileged) sub-section of reality. I would have argued that there is only one reality because of my limited experience and to be honest, because I wanted to live in a world where racism wasn’t a problem. I didn’t look for evidence that would have challenged my worldview because I was happy, safe, and comfortable pretending the world I lived in didn’t have racial inequalities. The people of color in my community who were being mistreated did not have the same luxury. Because whites are so rarely the target of institutional racial discrimination, we have the privilege of choosing when and where to deal with it.

I feel ashamed of my willful ignorance today, but that experience made my privilege visible to me and taught me how racism can hide in plain sight, especially when you are actively trying to deny it. As the debate around the Zimmerman verdict rages on all of us, but especially my White brothers and sisters, have the chance to understand the limits of our narrow worldview. It’s an opportunity to learn how people of other social locations are treated differently by our social institutions. It’s an opportunity to shed the one reality myth and step into a world with many Americas.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is your social location? That is, what are the social demographics/characteristics that make you who you are? Which of your social characteristics are in the majority in your area and which are in the minority?
  2. Read this author’s reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Now compare & contrast your reaction to the authors. How do you think your social location affects how you perceived the issue?
  3. It’s impossible for everyone to see, hear, read, or otherwise come to know what everyone of every social location is experiencing. So how can you try to better see the world from another person’s point of view?
  4. Why do you think the “one reality myth” is so tempting to people? Put another way, why do so many people that their personal worldview represents reality in it’s entirety?

  1. In case you somehow missed this story: In February of 2012 in Sanford Florida George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, followed and then shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old walking back to his father’s house. Read more about the case here.
  2. a tweet by Rapper/musician Toki Wright appears to be the original source.
  3. Covering all of the research on the bias in the criminal justice system is not really possible in a single blog post, in fact your best bet might be to read an introductory textbook dealing with race (I’d recommend Racial & Ethnic Groups) and a text that covers crime in much more depth (I’d recommend Deviant Behavior).
  4. Just FYI, the majority of drug arrests are for use and not sales. For instance, in 2005 only one out of five drug arrest was for sales (Alexander 2010:59 )

UPDATED 9-21-13: Earlier versions of this article claimed that Zimmerman used the stand your ground defense. This was an error.

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