Victim Blaming: Why We Turn on Trayvon Martin and Other Innocent Victims

Teen boy wearing hoodieThe shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a small Florida town has sparked a national outrage and inspired discussions about racism, fear of the unknown, and the risk of overzealous neighborhood watches. In the onslaught of sympathy and outrage, however, a disturbing trend of labeling Trayvon as somehow deserving of being shot has also occurred. This practice is known as victim blaming and is common when a member of a historically disenfranchised minority— such as women, people of color, or the disabled—is harmed. Psychologists have studied this behavior and can offer us several explanations of its cause.

Establishing Moral High Ground
No matter how much we might want to pretend otherwise, we live in a society in which various forms of oppression still exist. Although most experts agree that we are slowly making progress, women and people of color still make less money than white men, people of color are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated, and the sexual assault rate hovers around 25% of the female population. Members of nonmarginalized groups are frequently able to ignore these statistics or write them off as a product of personal failings. A white person might, for example, say that black people are arrested at disproportionate rates because of something dysfunctional about black culture.

But when a black teen is shot for no reason and all evidence points to some form of racial bias in the failure to arrest the shooter, these justifications for oppression go out the window. And this is where victim blaming comes in. It’s easy to write  victim blaming off as a form of oppression and racism—and, indeed, it is—but there’s much more at work here. We all want to believe we live in a just society, and members of privileged groups are no exception. Perhaps equally important, privileged members of society want to believe that they don’t benefit from oppression and that they aren’t participants in an unfairly biased system. Victim blaming enables them to do this by shifting the cause of the crime to something the victim did.

Protecting Oneself
There’s an unfortunate joke among criminal prosecutors that if you want to get a conviction in a rape case, pick a jury with all men. This is a gross exaggeration of the facts, but there’s always some degree of truth in jokes. Members of oppressed groups are not immune to victim blaming and, in fact, they are psychologically primed to participate in it. A person of color might know that they’re facing an unequal playing field but want to believe that, if they do everything right, they’ll never face discrimination.  Victim blaming allows them to shift blame to something other than discrimination. This, in turn, allows them to feel like nothing bad will ever happen to them. This practice is especially common with rape. Women who encounter rape victims often look to the victim’s behavior to find something the victim did—drinking too much, a short skirt, a flirtatious attitude, being in the wrong part of town—that contributed to the rape. They are then able to believe that, if they just avoid this same action, they’ll never be raped themselves.

How to Avoid Victim Blaming
Victim blaming is extremely harmful to victims, especially when victims seek help for dealing with trauma. Rape victims, for example, often feel that their experience in the criminal justice system and the blame that is attached to them is worse than the rape itself. Blaming victims also damages society as a whole because it provides an easy excuse for large-scale social wrongs. So what can you do to avoid blaming the victim? The first step is to focus on why you are trying to find an explanation and why this particular crime warrants an explanation. Then ask yourself if the explanation really justified the crime. We all know, for example, that even if Trayvon Martin smoked pot and was expelled from school—even, in fact, if Trayvon Martin was a horrible person, which by all accounts he was not—this did not warrant the death penalty. If the explanation you’re constructing doesn’t truly justify the crime, odds are good you’re participating in victim blaming.

Perhaps most importantly, focus on empathizing with the victim rather than the perpetrator. This is an excellent strategy for all forms of human suffering, not just those based on oppression. However, it is easier to relate to the perpetrator when the victim is a minority member, and consciously focusing on empathy can help you eliminate this unfortunate bias.

Sources:

  1. Guinote, A., Vescio, T. K. (2010). The social psychology of power. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  2. Richards, G. (2012). ‘Race’, racism and psychology: Towards a reflexive history. London: Routledge.
  3. Ryan, W. (1976). Blaming the victim. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Related articles:
The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Can Your Finger Be Racist?

 

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  • Billie Jo

    Billie Jo

    April 5th, 2012 at 2:04 PM

    We do it because we want to think that there has to be some rational reason why someone would do this and take the life if someone so young. So we blame the victim, say that he must have been doing something that would cause Zimmerman to shoot him. This happens alot of times, not just in this case. Rape victims are scrutinized for what they were wearing when attacked, people are looking for a reason to justify the hate. Does not make any of it right but I think that to help it make some bit of sense that is what we automatically do.

  • Jonny

    Jonny

    April 6th, 2012 at 5:57 AM

    the media is always quick to jump on the blame bandwagon

  • augusta

    augusta

    April 6th, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    I never wish any ill will toward anyone, let me first say that. But I do know that there are times when people deserve the treatment that they get. Now I am not saying that Treyvon asked for this to happen to him, I think that we can all say that more than likely he was an innocent victim. But suppose that he was not. Suppose that he did threaten the shooter- does he then have justifiable cause to protect himself? He does have the right to self defense. I don’t know whether this guy made a poor decision or a decision that saved hos own life, but what I guess I am trying to say more than anything else is that there are always two sides to any story, and if we are willing to listen to and believe one, then we at least have to be willing to listen to the other.

  • flamingo

    flamingo

    April 7th, 2012 at 2:00 AM

    first of all why do issues have to be treated on a racial basis in the first place? if a teen was shot and the perpetrator not arrested, then the cry should be for justice and enforcement of the law, not cries of racial bias. the media always seems to blow such things out of proportion.

  • Jonathan

    Jonathan

    April 7th, 2012 at 9:18 AM

    What most of this boils down to is the fear of the unknown. We are afraid of what we do not know and what we have not been acclimated to. I think that we all have felt that feeling of not knwoing what someone that we do not know is going to do, or how someone that we have never met is going to recat in a given situation. While I think it is crazy to base our judgements of someone on such superficial traits as race or gender, it happens, and we have to be willing to admit that it does.

  • Jasmine Moon

    Jasmine Moon

    April 9th, 2012 at 4:39 AM

    I’m sorry but when did it become ok to blame the victim? Hello! Have we forgotten that we have a VICTIM here, someone who has been woringed and possibly harmed, and in this case, is dead?!? When did this become ok, because in my book this kind of behavior is never ok.

  • Steven Jackson

    Steven Jackson

    April 27th, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    Too bad this had to happen to this guy with the gold teeth and tattoos. Gee… I wonder how many blunts he smoked that day. Victim you say? I believe that he was already on his way to being another burden to society.
    In your book is “pimpin” and drug dealing ok too? Because this is the glamourized future for a lot of these so called “victims”.

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