Society faces sociological impacts of racism

Elizabeth Holmgren

Disagreements over whether Trayvon Martin’s death was a racist act or not stem from two different schools of thought, according to Anastasia Prokos, ISU associate professor of sociology.

One side emphasizes the individual aspect of racism, Prokos said, while the other side accentuates the institutional aspect of racism. Regardless of the side taken, those involved in the debate are overlooking the basics.

“People on both sides are talking past each other and not sharing a sociological definition of racism,” Prokos said.

Prokos contrasts the definitions of racism that exist not only in the Martin case, but also on a larger scale in everyday society. Many people, Prokos said, are insensitive to the big picture.

“The way many see racism is by looking at the world as individual people rather than broader patterns and institutions,” Prokos said. “People need to understand the idea that racism is a system of oppression, not only individual attitudes and actions.”

The shooting death of 17-year-old Martin in Sanford, Fla., brought this issue of racism into light several weeks ago. The lead suspect, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, who has a Caucasian father and Hispanic mother, claims he shot Martin in self-defense.

Among the public outcries for justice, arguments concerning the motives behind this killing continue to develop. Some call it an act of self-defense, while others say it is a prime example of the remaining racism in today’s society.

While Prokos does acknowledge that society has moved forward, she points out that people should be aware that racism is still an underlying issue.

“Obviously, we’ve made progress, but partly because of that progress a lot of the ways that racism plays out are hidden or difficult for us to see,” Prokos said. “That’s why they are also powerful.”

A recent study conducted by the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides an example of Prokos’ claim.

The study involved the manipulation of submitted applications in response to want ads. Of those applications, part of them contained applicants with names that stereotypically sound Caucasian, while the other part contained applicants with names that stereotypically sound African-American.

“The resumes were the exact same except for the sound of the name,” said Terry Besser, ISU professor of sociology. “Those with an African-American-sounding name generated a far lower amount of interviews and interest.”

The study reported that applications with the stereotypical white name received 50 percent more responses than the applications with the stereotypical African-American names.

Sociological studies like these have brought more awareness about how complex the problem of racism is and how difficult it is to find solutions.

“No single step will solve the whole problem [of racism] because it does involve individual change and institutional change,” Prokos said.

There is much disagreement on whether attitudes or behavior must change first, Besser said.

“My belief is that behavior has to change first. If you sit around and wait for attitudes to change, nothing will ever happen,” Besser said.