In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal on murder charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and peaceful protests against the verdict across the nation, Americans are rightly asking: “What kind of justice system allows someone to go completely unpunished after killing an unarmed black teenager taking a walk in his neighborhood?” Pioneering work by Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo and his colleagues on “laissez-faire racism” –- a “kindler, gentler anti-black ideology” where negative stereotypes of African Americans shape public policy in pernicious but ostensibly race-neutral ways — can shed depressing light on the question.
The crux of this argument is that American racism has largely moved beyond the overt, biologically-based strain prevalent during the Jim Crow era to a more subtle form of racial exclusion based on the notion that African Americans themselves — and their cultural norms — are to blame for their social and economic position in American life. Bobo’s theory is typically used to explain white indifference to pervasive economic inequality and educational underachievement in black communities, lines like “they don’t work hard enough” or “they don’t have the right values,” and hostility to progressive policies to achieve greater equality and opportunity for African Americans. Bobo argues that these attitudes constitute a clear form of racism, although one that’s in many ways different from the older version:
The basis for retaining the term “racism” is two-fold. First, African Americans remain in a unique and fundamentally disadvantaged structural position in the American economy and polity. This disadvantaged position is partly the legacy of historic racial discrimination during the slavery and Jim Crow eras. Even if all direct racial bias disappeared African Americans would be disadvantaged due to the cumulative and multidimensional nature of historic racial oppression in the U.S. Further, racial discrimination continues to confront African Americans albeit in less systematic and absolute ways in its current form. Rather than relying on state enforced inequality as during the Jim Crow era, however, modern racial inequality relies upon the market and informal racial bias to recreate, and in some instances sharply worsen, structured racial inequality. Hence, the phrase ‘Laissez Faire Racism…’
In the wake of the civil disorders of the 1960s, Schuman (1971) called attention to the pronounced tendency of white Americans to view the “race problem” as flowing from the freely chosen cultural behaviors of blacks themselves. The tendency to deny the modern potency of discrimination and to see a lack of striving and effort on the part of blacks as the key issue in black-white inequality has been confirmed in a number of subsequent investigations based on regional (Apostle et al 1983; Sniderman and Hagen 1985) and national data sources (Kluegel 1990; Kluegel and Bobo 1993).
The laissez-faire racism theory seems to equally apply to a nominally colorblind criminal justice system in a society in which the persistent negative stereotype that young black men are prone to violence, and its corollary that legal authorities and other citizens are justified in their fear and confrontation of black men, are widespread. The legal system may be not outwardly racist or overtly discriminatory against African Americans, but it operates in the context of widespread, dangerous stereotypes that leads to discriminatory effects in practice.
Understanding this framework, the judicial outcome of the Zimmerman case is not surprising. The evidentiary hurdle in this case was always high for the prosecution, as it should be in all murder cases. But beyond the difficulty of parsing all the facts given the lack of witnesses, the legal system itself virtually guaranteed that George Zimmerman was free to carry out his self-appointed role as neighborhood watch leader confronting what he called “fucking punks” like Trayvon Martin who “always get away.”
We’ll never know either what happened that night or what Zimmerman’s true motives were for sure. But we do know that given the insane legal structure in Florida, people like Zimmerman are legally allowed to start altercations with those they fear or don’t like and then claim self-defense if the person they confront fights back in some manner. This is laissez-faire racism in action -– laws that, while nominally colorblind, in practice protect the right of white people to act on their prejudices and stereotypes about “violent” African-Americans with force.
So, if laissez-faire racism is real, how do we end it? This is tricky. As Bobo and countless historians have described, Jim Crow racism was eventually upended by an organized civil rights movement that systematically attacked the legal structure upholding discrimination against blacks. African Americans now hold the same rights of citizenship as others in American life but still face discriminatory practices and cultural prejudices that undermine the notion of full equality for all. These less visible biases are much harder to attack since they are outcomes of a seemingly color-blind process. It seems that fighting laissez-faire racism will require, among other things, ongoing exposure and public education, sustained protest against these practices, political organizing to replace lawmakers who embody these attitudes and support discriminatory laws, reshaping our legal understanding of racism to better account for disparate racial impacts in addition to discriminatory racial intent, and renewed efforts to improve the economic and social opportunities of African Americans.
If this new civil rights activism takes hold, maybe we can find some modicum of justice for Trayvon Martin and prevent future tragedies from occurring.