Where US gun culture meets segregation: The enemy within

Gated communities for the lower middle classes as well as the rich are little frontier towns with their own sheriffs, suspicious of every outsider – Published on Le Monde Diplo, by Rowland Atkinson and Oliver Smith, May 2012.

George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin at a gated community in Sanford, Florida, in February, is to be charged with second-degree murder. The case, in which Martin, an unarmed black teenager, died, reminds us how young African-American males face prejudice and heightened risks of death or harm.  

Zimmerman is Hispanic, making the case more than a simple reflection of racial hierarchies in US society, and he was the self-appointed neighbourhood-watch leader for The Retreat, a community of 264 homes. The incident was out of the ordinary but touched on concerns about US society’s capacity to harm innocents.

We have investigated more than 50 documented cases of killings inside gated communities in the US in the past decade (1). These developments, protected by walls, gates, and sometimes guards and security technologies, are now home to more than one in 20 US households — middle-class black, white and Hispanic. They have a sense of embattled privilege and are selected for the safety, quality of homes and prestige they appear to offer: research shows how fearful many of their residents are (2).

Yet they are not immune to serious crime and violence: crime in gated communities is around the same level as in non-gated ones of a similar social profile, and residents are no safer than in ordinary high-income neighbourhoods. Criminologists often point out that the social composition of neighbourhoods is a better indicator of risk: in societies where social and material inequality is high, we see far higher levels of ghettoised distress and of violence and harm.

Breach homicide: … //

… Weary recognition:

The main outcome of the Martin case has been a weary recognition of the racially polarised and prejudiced society revealed by the killing. There are wider questions about the control of firearms and the mentality that tacitly supports assault by would-be vigilantes working within protected communities. Such actions are not aberrations: rather, residents’ fear can lead to aggression in the most affluent neighbourhoods. To be seen to be out of place is dangerous. Gating may increase the risk of challenges or assaults on non-residents because outsiders are seen as emissaries of a risky world from which residents have taken shelter. Anxiety about a “breach” is high in the list of residents’ fears (4).

A more valuable outcome would be a public conversation about the deficiency of community safety in the US. Gated communities are emblematic of a perception that law enforcement is deficient and that social risks, heavily racially inflected, are to be avoided by the location decisions of homeowners. Zimmerman is not alone in acting as sheriff of a petty fiefdom: gates create new frontiers, outside publicly accountable modes of policing, beyond which intruders or visitors face stares, questions or far worse. These themes, taken to their logical conclusion in the 2007 Mexican film La Zona directed by Rodrigo Plá, suggest that responsibility for social control may soon be ceded to a fearful, affluent class living behind gates and aggressive to those who do not appear to belong. (full text).


Americanization of Baluchistan, on CHOWK, by Taimoor Ashraf March 13, 2012;

en espanol / Gary Orfield: Alternatives to School Segregation in the US, The Case of Magnet Schools, 07/06/2011, 66.24 min;

Desegregated Schools and Segregated Education, 69.01 min: Professor William “Sandy” Darity addresses the paradox of segregated education in desegregated schools—a phenomenon he describes as resulting from the separate tracking of students within the same school;

Podiumsgespräch: Zwischen Partizipation und Segregation, 85.13 min, uploaded by boellstiftung, 31. Oktober 2011 – Der mühsame Weg zu sozialer und politischer Teilhabe:

  • Cem Özdemir – Bundesvorsitzender Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, Berlin,
  • Maria Böhmer – MdB, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Migration, Integration und Flüchtlinge, Berlin,
  • Kenan Kolat – Bundesvorsitzender Türkische Gemeinde Deutschland (TGD), Berlin,
  • Lale Akgün – Publizistin und Psychologin, Köln,
  • Moderation: Ralf Fücks, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Berlin.

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