Zimmerman vs Martin: An Analysis of Sociological Theory

 

Current events provide unique examples of how American society works and functions. This can be seen in the case of Zimmerman vs. Martin. It demonstrates how individuals and groups relate and interact with each another. Sociology theories help to create an understanding of these social effects. This includes the relationship between the individual and greater society. Sociological theory is defined as “a statement as to how and why particular facts are related… used to analyze and explain objects of social study and facilitate organizing sociological knowledge”, (Sociological Perspective, 2013). The 2013 case Zimmerman vs. Martin is a significant event that shapes and defines American society. The case made national headlines, stirring controversy regarding race relations, the criminal justice system, and social stratification. Zimmerman vs. Martin applied to sociological theory generates a better understand how society influence individuals. This is observed in sociology theories of Race and Gender, Symbolic Interactionism, and Conflict Theory.

Case Facts

On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was fatally shot and killed by George Zimmerman walking home from the convenience store in Stanford, Florida. Although Zimmerman admitted to the crime, he was initially questioned and released with no pending charges. Trayvon, an African American, was just 17 years old at the time of his death. He was found dead on arrival, unarmed, and with no injuries except for a shot to the heart. At the time of the incident, assailant George Zimmerman, a White-Hispanic, was 28 years old. With no pending charges, the grieving family questioned Stanford Police Department with no results. The Martin family turned to the media asking for justice for the tragic death. Fueled by support from the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the removal of the Sanford Police Department Chief of Police, George Zimmerman was eventually charged with murder and released on bail. Despite his admission of guilt and logistics of Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty on all charges. “The verdict caps a case that has inflamed passions for well over a year, much of it focused on race”, (Botelho & Yan, 2013).

Theory of Race and Gender

Race played an influential role in this case. The issues of race gave this case social relevance from the public and media. The issue reflects the fact that a young Black male was murdered without cause or justification by a White-Hispanic who received no judicial consequences for his actions. As such, the incident reflects the social theory of race, class, and gender. “The race, class, and gender approach can be described as one that recognizes various systems of oppression and privilege as existing in a matrix that result in various intersections of each system”, (Hattery & Smith, 2010). The theory acknowledges a scheme of social stratification. This occurs when individuals of a particular race and class are oppressed socially and systematically by another. In the case of Zimmerman vs Martin, the system of oppression is the judicial system. Zimmerman received no prison term, he was never initially charged despite admission of guilt, and the victim was an unarmed youth. Thus, no justice was served.. The system of this scheme is also the issue of race. Zimmerman is a White-Hispanic and a member of the privileged race in racial hierarchy. The person killed is a Black young male of the lowest racial standards. Consequently, “at the structural level, this means that the race, class, and gender framework illuminates the ways in which different systems of domination are mutually reinforcing: patriarchy is woven with racism (or race supremacy)”, (Hattery & Smith, 2010).

In the Trayvon Martin case, race played a significant influence on the events that unfolded, both socially and as it relates to his death. Race creates a social conflict. “Race can be defined as a concept which signifies and symbolizes socio-political conflicts and interests in reference to different types of human bodies”, (Winant, 2000). This is specifically observed in social support, public opinion, media interest, and eventually social movement. Many people across the country were interested in this case, Blacks and Whites alike. While Blacks found an injustice in this case, Whites felt the opposite. This is where the racial conflict arises. The fact that Zimmerman was found not-guilty of 2nd degree murder and manslaughter illustrates the socio-political conflicts between race, gender, and class. An opinion article posted in the New York Times indicates such conflicts. Researchers found that, “in New York City, Blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent 78% of all shooting suspects”, (2013). This statistic emphasizes the socio-political conflict of Blacks. It insinuates that Blacks are more likely to be involved in crime. This directly addresses the concepts of race, class, and gender in America. It addresses the social problems central to “racial themes which include crime, poverty, disease; addressing urbanization, stratification, and underdevelopment and confronting psychological issues”, (Winant, 2000). In this way, Zimmerman vs. Martin addresses the need to reduce the socio-political conflicts between race, class, and gender by bringing this tragedy to the forefront. This includes of the divisions and social stratifications observed between race and class.

The Zimmerman vs. Martin case, “evolved into a civil rights cause examining racial profiling and its consequences”, (Alvarez & Buckley, 2013). This is because Zimmerman made presumed assumptions about Martin. As Martin walked home from the store, Zimmerman stereotyped Martin as a thug, thief, and criminal. This stereotype caused Zimmerman followed Martin. This pursuit instigated a confrontation that leads to Martin’s death. It relates back to the statistics listed above citing that Black men are most often shooting suspects of crime. Had Martin been a Black woman, it is possible that Zimmerman may not have profiled him as a thug. Sociologist “refer to this as ‘double jeopardy’ and argues that the inter-weaving of these systems is not additive (race plus gender effects) but rather is multiplicative”, (Hattery & Smith, 2010). Because Martin was both Black and male, it multiplies the assumptions and bias given to him. Martin’s attire further instigates assumptions about his class and socio-economic status. Had Martin been wearing a leather jacket or pea-coat, Martin may not have been profiled. However, Martin was wearing urban attire- a hoodie that is commonly worn by individuals of lower and middle class. This perceived him as a criminal in the eyes of Zimmerman and others. Theories presented by DuBois found that, “race concepts provide excellent resources toward rejection of biological race concepts without denying the embodied consequential reality of race and toward refutation of popular beliefs that all race consciousness produces is racial injustice”, (Shuford, 2000).

Social Conflict Theory

The death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman address concerns in the criminal justice system. It suggests that the system is racially bias towards people of color. This is because Zimmerman was able to kill an unarmed teen without consequence and repercussions. The criminal justice system directly reflects the Conflict theory. The Social Conflict theory “is based upon the view that the fundamental causes of crime are the social and economic forces operating within society”, (Greek, 2005).  During the Zimmerman vs. Martin trial proceedings, the defense acknowledged recent break-ins in the community. The incidents of burglary in the neighborhood caused a heightened awareness of crime in the area. This includes strangers and Black boys in hoodies. As mentioned above, statistics associate young Black men as criminals and Martin fit the profile. It was racial profiling that caused Zimmerman to follow and kill Martin. Economic forces were also addressed in this case. This is due to the multiple burglaries. Zimmerman was being vigilant of any activity to keep the community safe and reduce incidents of crime. This caused Zimmerman to inaccurately judge Martin creating a conflict. The conflict was both physical and social. The social conflict is observed in the theories of race and class. This includes “the ways in which groups of people disagree, struggle for power, and compete for resources”, (Plunkett & Williams, 2008).

The verdict of the case can be seen as an injustice, or social conflict. Although Zimmerman admitted to the killing, Florida law allowed him to get away with murder. This is because of the logistics of the law, the lack of evidence, and the circumstances of the case.  As a result, “the Criminal Justice System and criminal law are thought to be operating on the behalf of rich and powerful social elites, with resulting policies aimed at controlling the poor”, (Greek, 2005). This becomes evident when the jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges. With this ruling, the jury agreed that Zimmerman had to right to shoot Martin because he was in danger, (Alvarez & Buckley, 2013).  According to Zimmerman, danger was present during the physical altercation that ensued between the two parties. Although Zimmerman instigated the altercation by following Martin, the shooting occurred in self-defense because of the fight. The verdict of not guilty brings to question the Florida laws. “Florida’s expansive self-defense laws… allow one with a reasonable fear of great bodily harm or death to use force, even if retreating from danger is an option”, (Alverez & Buckley, 2013). Although Martin was unarmed and stalked by Zimmerman, Zimmerman maintained the right to shoot Martin because of this presumed danger. The danger that is referred to in this case is the fight. Not only was Zimmerman older and outweighed Martin by at least 50 pounds, Zimmerman had a deadly weapon in his possession and Martin did not.

“The central areas of focus from the Conflict Theory are 1) classes exist in society 2) inequalities of society 3) how society functions to serve the powerful class and disadvantage others thereby causing conflict”, (Krawford, 2009). Zimmerman automatically belongs to the powerful class due to his ethnic background. Although he considers himself Hispanic, he is of mixed cultural heritage being Peruvian and White. In addition to this he belongs to the elite class. He is in high socio-economic status because his father is a judge in the court of law. Martin, on the other hand, does not fit this characteristic. He is of African American decent and his parents are working class people. It is evident in the socio-economic divisions that exist in America. These are the discrepancies between the rich and poor as well as the inequalities of society. This reiterates the Conflict theory observed in this event. “Human societies consist of varying degrees of inherently unequal elements therefore hierarchies emerge since power is not distributed equally”, (Plunkett & Williams, 2005). The inequalities are observed in the earlier statistic of Blacks most likely to be involved in crime compared to other ethnic groups. Furthermore, the verdict of the case emphasizes the disadvantage people of color have in the criminal justice system. African Americans are more likely defending themselves against accusations. When this occurs they are punished according to the law and crime committed. However in Zimmerman vs. Martin, Martin was a victim of violence. Despite this, his killer was acquitted of the crime and received no consequences for the murder.

Symbolic Interactionism Theory

The Symbolic Interactionism Theory reflects the incidents of this case. This theory associates how individuals interact and react to incidents and social events. The framework of Symbolic Interactionism gives a better understanding to why Zimmerman reacted to Martin the way he did. The framework of this theory analyzes how “people interact through symbols- words, gestures, rules, and roles” as well as how a “complex set of symbols give meaning to the world”, (Plunkett, 2008). Martin being Black, young, and male, created a symbol of Zimmerman. The symbol also includes the hoodie that Martin was wearing at the time of his death. Zimmerman was heavily encouraged by crime in the area. Consequently, Martin fit the profile or “symbol” that Zimmerman had of the common criminal. The symbol that Martin represents was crime, thug, and mischief. This was observed in the facts of the case. “The prosecution contention that Mr. Zimmerman had deliberately pursued Mr. Martin because he assumed the hoodie-clad teenager was a criminal and instigated the fight that led to his death”, (Alvarez & Buckley, 2013). It was the symbol that Martin portrayed which caused Zimmerman to react. If not for the symbols provided through society -that Black men are criminals- Zimmerman would not have felt inclined to follow and pursue Martin.

“He spotted Mr. Martin, an unfamiliar face in the rain, he immediately profiled him as a criminal”, (Alvarez & Buckley, 2013). The idea that Martin was profiled is associated with Symbolic Interactionism. According to the symbol or meaning that was portrayed, Zimmerman reacted negatively to Martin. This encouraged Zimmerman to follow the teenager. Following Martin, Zimmerman could monitor his activities. Zimmerman felt the need to draw his weapon because Zimmerman assumed Martin a threat because of his race. This is because, “how we define, or give meaning to the things we encounter will shape our actions towards them”, (Plunkett, 2008). Observing this theory and the reaction of Zimmerman, it becomes clear that Zimmerman is simply a product of his environment. Zimmerman learned these meanings, signs, and symbols from the way in which society portrays African Americans and their treatment by the criminal justice system. The media heightens the awareness of crime by putting Black faces to the crimes committed in society. This creates the symbol and meaning that Black men are synonyms for crime, theft, and violence. Therefore, Zimmerman “extended interpersonal meanings to an entire group”, (Plunkett, 2008).

The principles of the Symbolic Interactionism Theory include, “meaning, language, and thought, these core principles lead to conclusions about the creation of a person’s self and socialization into a larger community”, (Nelson, 1998). Through the use of meaning, language, and thought, Zimmerman was able to apply negative symbols to Martin. The meaning associated with this regards crime, theft, and burglary. Language is also applied to this case. Walking in the rain, in the dark, wearing a hoodie, this communicated a negative association with Zimmerman. Had Martin not had his head covered or was spotted walking during the day, Zimmerman may not have communicated this language in a negative fashion. Thought is also a process involved in this case. It regards how Zimmerman perceived the symbol that was communicated to him. As Martin walked home in the rain, Zimmerman told a 911 dispatcher that Martin was “suspicious”. He “wrongfully and spitefully prejudged Martin was one of those ‘fucking punks’”, (Botelho & Yan, 2013). The symbol that Martin projected encouraged Zimmerman to wrongfully follow and kill him. While the interaction between Zimmerman and Martin was purely instigated by Zimmerman, the symbol and meaning this had for Zimmerman comes not from himself, but was provided to him by his social environment. The social environment includes negative signs and symbols placed on Black Americans in the community, the media, and greater society.

“The trail maybe over, but the race debate surrounding the case rages on”, (Botelho & Yan, 2013). After the case, there was mass debate and controversy across the country. Millions of people hit the streets in protest, not only African Americans but people of different dominations and backgrounds. Many people of color observe this case as a form of Symbolic Interactionism. The verdict acts as a symbol of how African Americans are viewed and treated by American society. Many are quick to fit Blacks with crime and poverty. Yet, few view Blacks as a symbol of social stratification, inequality, and victimization by the system.  For people of color it is an example of the meanings that people have and hold towards African Americans. It indicates that people continue to associate Blacks with crime and participate in racial profiling. This ranges from everyday people to law enforcement and businesses. It also reflects elements of Conflict theory. It provides that, “focus is on separating the powerful from the have-nots who would steal from others and protecting themselves from physical attacks”, (Greek, 2005).  The verdict validates to those who view Blacks negatively through symbolic interactionism. It demonstrates that anyone can get away with racial profiling and murder of innocent people based on the symbols they project. However, for blacks the verdict is the exact opposite. It ignites fear in Black parents with young boys. They fear their innocent child may be profiled due to their color and killed because of the negative symbols associated with them by society. It also reignites the daily life of Black Americans who are pulled over, searched, or discriminated against because of these negative symbols. By addressing these negative associations, symbols, meanings, and language that occurs towards Blacks in the community, society is coming closer to reducing practices of social stratification among groups.

Conclusion

“Trayvon Martin will forever remain in the annals of history next to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till as symbols for the fight for equal justice”, (Botelho & Yan, 2013). He will remain one of the many African Americans who died without justification and consequence by his White assailant. However, not all people feel this way. These thoughts and meanings are different and reflective of the community, lifestyle, and beliefs of an individual. While many African Americans may feel hurt by injustice, Whites and others feel differently. They justify the actions of Zimmerman because of the meanings and symbols associated with Black people. Although they observe the incident as tragic due to the loss of a human life, they observe Trayvon as an individual who fought against an accuser and lost. The price he paid for a fight with his stalker was his life. The case brings up many issues present in today’s society. This includes the issues of race, gender, and class, the criminal justice system, inequality, and social stratification. It is important that Trayvon’s life not be taken in vain. Instead, everyone should learn from the mistakes made despite the varying differences of opinion regarding the outcome. We should learn not to judge, assume, and profile others according to their differences.

 

References

  1. Alvarez, E. & Buckley, C. (2013). Zimmerman is acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing. The NewYork Times. U.S. July 13, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/us/george-zimmerman-verdict-trayvon-martin.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&
  2. Botelho, G. & Yan, H. (2013). George Zimmerman found not guilty of murder in Trayvon Martin’s death. CNN Justice. July 14, 2013. U.S Edition. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/13/justice/zimmerman-trial/
  3. Cohen, R. (2013). Racism vs. Reality. Washington Post. Opinions. July 15, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/richard-cohen-racism-vs-reality/2013/07/15/4f419eb6-ed7a-11e2-a1f9-ea873b7e0424_story.html
  4. Hattery, A. and Smith, E. (2005). William Edward Burghardt DuBois and the Concepts of Race, Class and Gender. Socialization Today. 3(1). Spring. Official Journal of the North Carolina Sociological Association. Retrieved from: http://www.ncsociology.org/sociationtoday/v31/smith.htm
  5. Krawford, K. (2009). Power in Society- Marx Conflict Perspective & Elite Theory Social Analysis. Retrieved from: http://www.academia.edu/2365041/Marx_and_Conflict_Theory_-_Analysis_of_Power_in_Society
  6. Nelson, L. (1998). Herbert Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionism. Human Communication Theory. University of Colorado at Boulder. Retrieved from: http://www.colorado.edu/communication/meta-discourses/Papers/App_Papers/Nelson.htm
  7. Plunket, S. (2010). Symbolic Interactionism Theory. Course Pack. California State University Northdridge. Retrieved from: http://www.csun.edu/~whw2380/542/Symbolic%20Interactionism%20Lecture.htm
  8. Plunkett, S. and Williams, S. (2008). Conflict Theory. Overview. California State University Northridge. Retrieved from: http://www.csun.edu/~whw2380/542/Conflict%20theory.htm
  9. Shuford, J. (2010). Four DuBoisian COntribustions to Critical Race Theory. University of Oregon. Conference Program. Retrieved from: http://american-philosophy.org/archives/past_conference_programs/pc2001/Discussion%20papers/shuford.htm
  10. Sociological Perspective. (2013). The Conflict Perspective. Karl Marx, Class Conflict. Understanding Race and Ethnicity. Retrieved from: https://www.boundless.com/sociology/understanding-race-and-ethnicity/sociological-perspectives-on-race-and-ethnicity/the-conflict-perspective–2/
  11. Winant, H. (2000). Race and Race Theory. Annual Review of Sociology. 2000. Temple University. Retrieved from: http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/winant/Race_and_Race_Theory.html
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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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