04/02/2012 06:03 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Stigmata and Violence as Social Control

Officials in 17th-century Puritan Boston coerced Hester Prynne into permanently affixing the stigma of the scarlet letter onto her garments to forever socially castigate her for her so-called "crime" of conceiving a daughter in an adulterous affair. Stigmata include symbols, piercings, or brands used throughout recorded history to mark an outsider, offender, outcast, slave, or an animal.

Though Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter is a work of fiction, members of several minoritized communities continue to suffer the sting of metaphoric stigmata forced onto their skin, birth sex, sexual and gender identities and expressions, religious beliefs and affiliations, countries of origin and linguistic backgrounds, disabilities, ages, and so on.

Many overt forms of oppression are obvious when dominant groups tyrannize subordinated communities. Prime examples include the horrific treatment of People of Color under the system of apartheid in South Africa and Black Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the mass slaughter of Jews and other stigmatized and marginalized groups in Nazi Germany, and the merciless killing of Muslims during the Christian "Crusades."

Many forms of oppression and enforced stigmata (as well as dominant group privileges), however, are not as apparent, especially to members of dominant groups. Oppression in its fullest sense also refers to the structural or systemic constraints imposed on groups even within constitutional democracies like the United States.

Stigmatized groups live with the constant fear of random and unprovoked systematic violence directed against them simply on account of their social identities. The intent of this xenophobic (fear and hatred of anyone of anything seeming "foreign") violence is to harm, humiliate, and destroy the "Other" for the purpose of maintaining hierarchical power dynamics and attendant privileges of the dominant group over minoritized groups.

On February 26 of this year, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch leader in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin was walking on the sidewalk talking on a cell phone to his girlfriend and carrying a can of iced tea and a small bag of Skittles when Zimmerman confronted and shot him, and then he claimed self-defense. By most reports, Martin's "crime" was walking while being black in a predominantly white gated community visiting family and friends. His stigmata included his black skin and his youth while wearing a "hoodie."

Black parents from all walks of life throughout the country engage with their sons in what they refer to as "the talk" once their sons reach the age of 13 or 14 instructing them how to respond with calm if ever confronted by police officers. Parents of these young men know full well the stigmata embedded into their sons by a racist society marking them as the expression of criminality, which perennially consigns them to the endangered species list.

In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, 32-year-old Iraqi American Shaima Alawadi appears to be the victim of a brutal hate-inspired murder in her San Diego, California home. On March 24, 2012, Alawadi's eldest daughter, Fatima al-Himidi, found Aalwadi "drowning in her own blood," beaten with a tire iron. A note near Alawadi bloodied body read, "Go back to your country, you terrorist."

Today, especially since September 11, 2001, we have seen growing numbers of violent acts directed against Muslims and Sikhs. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released its 2006 report finding that approximately 25 percent of U.S.-Americans consider Islam as a religion of hatred and violence, and that those with the most biased attitudes tend to be older, less educated, politically conservative, and are more often to belong to the Republican Party.

During the single year of 2005 alone, for example, CAIR listed a total of 1,522 civil rights violations against American Muslims, 114 of which were violent hate crimes. The report included incidents of violence, as well as harassment and discriminatory treatment, including "unreasonable arrests, detentions, and searches/seizures." For example, the CAIR report included an incident in which a Muslim woman wearing a hijab (the garment many Muslim women wear in public) took her baby for a walk in a stroller, when a man driving a truck nearly ran them over. The woman cried out that, "You almost killed my baby!," and the man responded, "It wouldn't have been a big loss."

There is an old tradition in our western states of ranchers killing a coyote and tying it to a fence to scare off other coyotes, and to keep them from coming out of their hiding places. That's what Matthew Shepard's killers did to him in 1998 outside Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard's convicted murderers, Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, smashed his skull and tied him to a fence as if he were a lifeless scarecrow, where he was bound for over 18 hours in near freezing temperatures. The message to the rest of us lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from these killers is quite clear: stay locked away in your suffocating and dank closets, and don't ever come out.

We witnessed the brutal attacks on Rodney King in Los Angeles, the barbarous slaying of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas, and the fierce rape and murder of Cherise Iverson, a 7-year-old girl in a Las Vegas casino bathroom. And these are simply the most extreme examples of hate-related violence.

We must not and cannot dismiss these incidents as simply the actions of a few individuals, for oppression exists on multiple levels in multiple forms. The killers live in a society that subtly and not-so-subtly promotes intolerance, imposes stigmata, and perpetuates violence. These incidents must be seen as symptoms of larger systemic national problems.

In these times of declining social mobility, and as the gap between the rich and the poor ever increases, dominant groups attempt to divide the dispossessed by pointing to scapegoats to blame. For example, vigilantes sometimes calling themselves members of the so-called "Minutemen" movement target and hunt down anyone suspected of being undocumented.

We are living in an environment in which property rights hold precedence over human rights. In this environment, the political, corporate, and theocratic right are waging a war to turn back all the gains progressive people have made over the years. One tactic they use is to inhibit the development of coalitions between marginalized groups.

For example, on March 26, 2012, the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights organization, revealed a series of internal documents from the conservative National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which laid out its strategies for restricting the rights of marriage equality from same-sex couples. According to the "confidential" 2008-09 report to the NOM Board of Directors: "The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks -- two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots... "

To disengage and reverse stigmata once imposed can be difficult but certainly not impossible. Whenever white LGBT people, however, view black and latino/a people through the stigma of criminality, whenever heterosexual black and latino/a people view LGBT people through the stigmata of sin and abuse of youth, whenever we view Muslims through the stigma of terrorism, whenever any group views any other through lenses of stigmata, this horizontal stigmatization and oppression only further entrenches the vertical hierarchical power structures.

Metaphorically, oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes. If we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes, the wheel will continue to roll over people. Let us, then, also work on dismantling all the many spokes in conquering all the many forms of stigmatized oppression in all their many forms.

In the final analysis, whenever anyone of us is diminished, we are all demeaned, when anyone or any group remains institutionally and socially stigmatized, marginalized, excluded, or disenfranchised, when violence comes down upon any of us, the possibility for authentic community cannot be realized unless and until we become involved, to challenge, to question, and to act in truly transformational ways.