I have been routinely teaching a theme-oriented composition course that focuses on institutional racism for well over a decade. During that time I've probably spent hundreds of hours doing research on the topic, and I've found that Paul Kivel's Uprooting Racism text is probably one of the best documents that can help anyone learn how institutional racism manifests itself in their daily lives regardless of race or ethnicity. Before anyone starts to complain--especially whites who suddenly become overly defensive despite their relative lack of knowledge about institutional racism which many often confuse with personal prejudice--one should read Kivel's text or any other well-researched work that focuses on this thoroughly ingrained phenomenon.
And Juror B37's recent interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper unintentionally illustrates how institutional racism affects the judicial system and even jurors themselves.
For example, if one queries roomfuls of people of color if they think nearly all-white juries or hiring committees or police departments or court systems routinely negatively impact them, one will be overwhelmed by responses in the affirmative. Of course, that's something white America rarely witnesses since such roomfuls don't get much attention, let alone assembled, on any cable or network news show.
One cause for institutional racism stems from one important fact: Most whites live fairly segregated personal lives. They might have some regular, forced contact with Latino/as, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and other non-whites via employment situations which are usually limited in scope: it's forced, often superficial interaction. For example, I teach at a community college where 57.5% of the students are Latino/as (most are people of Mexican descent; 70% of our student body identifies themselves as members of non-white groups); nevertheless, many--if not the overwhelming majority--of my white colleagues can't point to one truly close Latino/a friend (not someone they say hello to in the hallways or briefly talk to in a department meeting--that's an acquaintance at best) even if such colleagues have lived most of their adult lives in the surrounding area where the latest 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report noted that 60% of the populace in Tulare County is "Hispanic." Despite this forced interaction, few colleagues develop close relationships with Latino/as. In contrast, my best friend for over 30 years is white; moreover, he comes from a different socioeconomic background (his father was a physician; my father was a cement mason) and is approximately 17 years my senior. What drew to us to each other was our love for poetry (we met in a poetry writing workshop in college) despite our obvious ethnic/racial/age/socioeconomic differences. In short, I've been able to establish a close friendship with someone who's white, but I have severe doubts that many whites in this area will ever be able to establish similar close friendships with any Latino/a even though Latino/as are the largest so-called "minority" group here (that cosmic irony always makes me flinch when I hear white colleagues talk about "minorities" when whites are the numerical minority but the majority when it comes to their over-representation within the local teaching ranks: triple affirmative action).
Let me make the jump to Juror B37. After listening to her interview, I can ascertain with great assurance that she probably has no close friends of color. Why? Any astute listener should notice how quickly she identifies with "George" (she routinely addresses him by his Christian name even though most of the attorneys in the case on both sides refer to him as "Mr. Zimmerman") and the fact that she initially voted "Not Guilty" in the face of impressive--at least according to many people of color--circumstantial evidence that Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin and used unnecessary lethal force in what was essentially a fist fight. Conveniently for Juror B37, she ignored the medical testimony that Zimmerman was not in any way severely injured but she quickly agreed with his claim that he "feared for his life." She's quick to defend Zimmerman in her responses, but she has to think when she answers questions about Martin. That quickness is an indicator of her predisposed nature to defend a fellow white person who took an innocent young teen's life.
If she had close friendships with African Americans, she might have been more open to the state's evidence--and to logic. For example, once Zimmerman shoots his pistol, the screaming stops. Why? Ask any forensic expert who's familiar with gunshot victims and he or she will note that once a person is shot in the torso, the immediate shock to one's cardiovascular system will generally end a person's screaming. If Zimmerman had been the one who was screaming, he would have continued to scream to gain anyone's assistance even after shooting Martin.
If she had not been so isolated from people of color, she would have questioned Zimmerman's initial reason for calling the police. Martin did not commit any crime, for it's not a crime to walk in any neighborhood at a leisurely pace; it's not a crime to drink an iced tea or munch on candy; it's not a crime to talk on a cell phone as one walks. According to Zimmerman and Juror B37, Martin was "looking in houses...with no purpose." When I walk in a neighborhood, I too look at the houses I pass, and I'm sure no one can somehow determine my "purpose" since mind reading is not a talent most possess. Hence, Juror B37 should have asked herself this question: "Why did Zimmerman call the police in the first place?" We know from 911 police records that Zimmerman made numerous calls to report suspicious people in his neighborhood over the years: All of his calls involved black people, not white people. In essence, Zimmerman established a long pattern of racial profiling, yet Juror B37 and her fellow jurors for some reason ignored this fact.
She noted that Zimmerman had a right to "stand his ground," yet didn't Martin have a similar right to stand his ground as the person followed by a stranger? When Martin asked Zimmerman what he wanted with him, why didn't Zimmerman identify himself as a neighborhood watch captain? Why didn't Zimmerman immediately make an effort, considering he was armed, to assure the teen that the neighborhood has experienced a number of burglaries and he was curious as to Martin's "purpose"?
Of course, many of us know that the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights protect us from illegal search and seizure, that we have a right to our privacy, that we don't have to answer any questions from the Zimmermans in the world regardless of their mission, that they don't have the right to detain us as we walk down sidewalks. After all, O. J. Simpson is in a Nevada prison for preventing others from leaving their hotel room--he committed technical kidnapping--and Zimmerman likewise had no legal right to detain Martin or anyone else on a public street who doesn't commit a crime. Yet that fact also escaped Juror B37.
When I first heard about the composition of the Zimmerman jury, I shook my head, for I know from the research of others that mainly white jurors often side with white defendants when the victims are people of color. One wonderful, eye-opening resource is the film Race to Execution: the filmmakers bring to light various studies that prove that people of color, including victims, routinely suffer injustice at the hands of mainly white juries.
Institutional racism will continue to afflict people of color until juries, hiring committees, city councils, state legislatures, and police departments become truly diverse--and personal lives become truly diverse as well. That will take personal effort and commitment, something many who sided with Zimmerman will never undertake or even consider.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Monday, March 11, 2013
My mother died on Saturday, March 9, 2013. The following poem is for her who gave six children their lives--no greater gift yet devised on the planet since the universe exploded.
On the Day the Universe Ends
for Frances R. Vasquez
On the day the universe ends
the sky shuts down, inundated
by pneumonia's lung-borne flood,
for no ark drifts to shore.
What songs the sparrows improvise
from branches to bowed power lines
go unsung, unplugged,
for no one monitors their jagged notes.
All the boys in grass-stained jeans
ladder down from tree houses,
chilled from the night's starless elms,
for the cold rungs give out like breath.
And the girls? The girls know
what their ancestors knew, baptized
over the cistern's veined, mortal waters
on the day the universe ends.