VIOLENCE THROUGH APATHY

Maddy Schipporeit, first year writing student UNC Asheville

A Look Into Why White Apathy Can Perpetuate Violence Against African Americans

African American men have been disproportionately affected by violence since the creation of the America. Through the continuous fight for civil rights, people of color have gained miles of progress from where they started when this country was formed. Some people would say that people of color are now on equal grounds with white people, but through many different forms of suppression, lack of public knowledge and empathy, and the continued public indifference towards racial profiling, people of color still have to fight for freedom every day. Through this apathy from majority racial groups, those who commit violent acts against people of color do not receive proper punishment and thus their behavior is normalized in society.  

Burton Street Peace Garden Tour

Burton Street Peace Garden sits nestled between two houses; the vibrant colors attracting your eyes once it comes into view. As soon as you enter the gates, you emerge into a wonderland of sculptures, paintings, and plants. Each sculpture represents a different social issue: Some were showing the effects of violence on people of color, others were memorials for important historical figures of color. The focus of each sculpture changes, shifting the tone of the Garden to an educational shelter and providing an insight into the struggle many Americans face on a daily basis. Each twist and turn reveals a new corner for exploring and tucked away in one of those corners is a small sculpture of a worn down hoodie hanging up. One pocket holds a bag of skittles and the other an Arizona sweet tea. Trayvon Martin’s assailant mistook these for ‘deadly’ weapons on the night Martin died. Upon seeing this I froze in place and began to feel the weight of his story through that memorial. Being up close to the elements that were blamed for his death was almost repulsive; these unoffending items that everyone carries and Martin’s attacker saw these as a genuine threat. 

I chose to write about Trayvon Martin because his story was the first time I had truly encountered the racial divide in this country and how it can manifest into real violence. I can empathize as a woman, but I felt a disconnect being a white person, yet I still resonated with the nightmare Martin went through. This impact reshaped my view on the world and opened my eyes to the lived experiences of those around me. 

Trayvon Martin’s Story

Trayvon Martin was shot in a small town in Florida by a community watch member named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was on patrol throughout their neighborhood, he had a concealed carry license and a 9mm pistol on him; While on patrol Zimmerman spotted Martin walking down a sidewalk after he went to a convenience store to buy snacks and proceeded to call 911. The Orlando Sentinel transcribed the phone conversation between Zimmerman and 911 and against the operator’s advice, Zimmerman got out of his car and pursued Martin, saying “Looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something… these assholes, they always get away” (Stutzman, Rene; Prieto, Bianca 2012). This is the point where both men disappeared behind a building and the facts have been disputed. What we do know is that the two men confronted each other and proceeded to get into a physical altercation. It was then that multiple residents of the community called in the fight to 911 and then two shots rang through the air and Trayvon Martin was shot in the chest. “In one of the eight calls, screaming can be heard in the background as a woman tries to get help. That call is punctuated by two gunshots” (Stutzman, Rene; Prieto, Bianca 2012). 

CNN reported that Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder April 11, 2012 and was then found not guilty on July 13, 2013 (Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts 2018) sparking massive controversy throughout the country. Zimmerman used the commonly known “Stand Your Ground” Florida law to justify using his weapon to shoot Martin, however it is debated if this law applied to Zimmerman because he actively pursued Martin. George Curry of the Washington Informer reported “State Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, told the Tampa Bay Times, ‘They got the goods on [Zimmerman]. They need to prosecute whoever shot the kid. He has no protection under my law’” (Curry 2012). The divide Zimmerman’s trial created only deepened the racial wound this nation has; too often have we seen controversial  murder cases that do not seem to reflect justice in the end, and this disproportionately affects the black population. 

National Issue of Racial Profiling

The re-occurrence of this narrative should’ve sparked widespread change throughout our country, yet we continuously see the exact same outcome: violence towards an unarmed black man, a controversial and highly publicized trial, and then a defendant walks free. We are too quick to shift the blame to the victims by reducing them to just the basic stereotypes of their race; for example “Judge Debra Nelson... rules that Trayvon Martin's familiarity with guns, his marijuana use, and fights he may have been in cannot be brought up in Zimmerman's trial” (Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts 2018); These previous facts about Martin had nothing to do with the night of his murder, but we see minor offences brought up in cases reflecting this one, and luckily the judge assigned to Martin’s trial denied that evidence. There is a drastic difference in the perception of minor character flaws based on the different identities we wear, and negative connotations have been connected to the black population to hold them to a permanent second class status, even today. Racial profiling, though seen initially as a strong method of reducing crime, only bends under criticism. Jesper Ryberg wrote for the The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 15 and through his analysis of racial profiling among police officers he concluded that furthering the use of racial profiling will not contribute any meaningful help to overall crime prevention and may contribute to excessive punishment and that it is undesirable to favor a lopsided system (Ryberg 2011). 

The use of racial profiling is only justified when someone allows the stereotypes of a race to cloud their empathy and judgement. In  “Understanding Public Support For, or Opposition to, the Use of Consumer Racial Profiling to Identify Shoplifters” written by Shaun Gabbidon and Tatiyana Laws, they conduct an open ended survey presenting two basic questions: “'Do you believe Consumer Racial Profiling is a strategy that should be used by retailers to prevent shoplifting?' and 'Please explain why you believe Consumer Racial Profiling is a strategy that SHOULD/SHOULD NOT be used by retailers to prevent shoplifting'” (Gabbidon, Laws 2016). Depending on which answer they received for the first question would determine which second question the participant received. They concluded that racial profiling in a retail setting was harmful to not only consumers, but also businesses as well.


We cannot discount that human experiences and memory are powerful tools and shape our world view, but the universal suffering of the African American population in the U.S. is too great to justify personal negative experiences. Whether it is a legal or retail setting, racial profiling is far too common for majority races to feel comfortable in, even if it harms themselves as well. 


Not So Safe Haven

Asheville has been hailed as one of the safest places for diversity to thrive; the community’s inclusivity has made Asheville a retreat for progressive southerners, but prejudice can still survive here. Earlier in 2018, the Asheville Citizen Times reporter Joel Burgess wrote about two Asheville police officers that stopped a black man, Johnnie Jermaine Rush, while he was jaywalking at night and then tried to detain him using excessive force, while all being recorded on a body camera worn by one of the officers (Burgess 2018). Even with the body camera, the officers were not immediately repremaded; the launch of a criminal investigation was denied three times and one of the two offending officers was suspended on simple assault (Burgess 2018). Both Rush and Trayvon Martin represent how white apathy manifests today; when a racially insensitive or prejudice person has command over the public there tends to be a clear dichotomy between their methods used on white people and people of color. Had Martin and Rush been white, they may not have been targeted for looking ‘suspicious’ while walking through certain areas. Both men were unarmed and presented no threat when being approached, but due to racial profiling, the two officers and Zimmerman let stereotypes cloud any judgement and irrationally escalated the situations. 


Moving Forward

These stories fan the flames of racial prejudice but offer no solutions because we know that these cases haven’t had full justice served yet. For too long, white Americans have allowed their prejudices and anger to manifest into apathy towards other minority groups crying out for help. This selective hearing is the roadblock that is halting the progress African Americans have been making for so long. White Americans can no longer play tone deaf to the lived experiences of African Americans, even though they may not be enjoyable or match someone’s personal beliefs. It is crucial for the achievement of racial equality that everyone extends a level of empathy to one another; if we cannot listen to someone’s experiences then we will never know what the world can truly offer. Community projects like the Burton Street Peace Garden offer an engaging way for a community member to learn about these experiences in a safe and productive environment. 


Conclusion

Since Trayvon Martin’s death we have continued to see African Americans harassed by white people who believe they have authority over their fellow citizens. The normality of police brutality in our media and the lack of understanding about racial profiling and its effects has eroded the trust African Americans have for this country: However, we have also seen the emergence of many allies willing to spread their voices and challenge these harmful views. Average citizens now feel compelled to extend a hand and fight against racial prejudice. We have come so far from the creation of America, and now with the help of allies we can end racial profiling and its negative effects it has on our society. 

References

Burgess, J. (2018, March 10). “Video shows Asheville police officer beating man suspected of jaywalking, trespassing.” Retrieved from https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2018/02/28/video-shows-apd-officer-beating-man-suspected-jaywalking-trespassing/382646002/

Curry, G. E. (2012, Apr). “Trayvon Martin was Standing His Ground.” Washington Informer Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.wncln.wncln.org/docview/1017886839?accountid=8388

Gabbidon, S. L., & Laws, T. (2016). “Understanding Public Support For, or Opposition to, the Use of Consumer Racial Profiling to Identify Shoplifters.” Security Journal, 29(3), 409-422. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/sj.2013.36

Ryberg, Jesper. “Racial Profiling and Criminal Justice.” The Journal of Ethics, vol. 15, no. 1/2, 2011, pp. 79–88. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41486902

Stutzman, R., & Prieto, B. (2012, Mar 17). “Trayvon Martin Shooting.” Orlando Sentinel Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.wncln.wncln.org/docview/928826473?accountid=8388

“Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts.” (2018, May 07). Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts/index.html