Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

Is the Man Who Killed Trayvon Martin a Racist? Who Cares?

Asking the wrong questions about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.

The story of the tragic shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin continues to unfold. Each day seems to bring with it a new revelation, whether an eyewitness coming forward for the first time or the release of a new audio recording. And a great deal of attention is being devoted to debating whether George Zimmerman–the neighborhood watch captain who chased and confronted Martin after calling police to report that the African-American 17-year-old was acting suspiciously–is a racist.

To this question I offer the following, less-than-nuanced reply: Who cares?

Is this really the question we should be asking right now? For that matter, is this a question on which we're ever going to come to any semblance of agreement?

Let me be clear: this tragedy is all about race. While some politicians have suggested of late that "race shouldn't be a factor" in discussing the case, it doesn't take a behavioral scientist to tell you that Zimmerman would have been far less likely to view an unarmed White teen outside a convenience store as suspicious or worthy of surveillance.

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(Of course, this is also what the behavioral science does tell us: That respondents in a study who first see a Black face are more likely than those who first see a White face to mistakenly think an ambiguous object subsequently presented is a gun. And participants completing a video game-like police simulation perform similarly, becoming more likely to mistakenly push the "shoot" button when an unarmed suspect is Black than when he's White. For that matter, subliminal presentation of crime-related images–shown to respondents so quickly that they don't consciously know what they've just seen–makes people pay more attention to Black faces shown next, the mere unconscious suggestion of crime being enough to activate visual processing related to race.)

So why are we arguing about whether or not George Zimmerman is a racist? This is a word–racist–that we use in dispositional terms, to refer to a person's character or some sort of stable, internal belief system. And so we're subjected to a variety of unimpressive arguments on both sides of the debate:

  • Yes, he's a racist: he had made dozens of previous calls to police to report similar instances of supposedly suspicious behavior.
  • No, he can't be a racist–trust me, I know him and he's a good guy.
  • Yes, he is: he used racial slurs when on the phone with 911.
  • No way he's a racist; after all, he has Black friends.


We've been down this road before, haven't we? With a variety of celebrities, politicians, and others who made inappropriate comments or jumped to conclusions about someone in a way that at least raised the possibility of racial bias... In each instance, our discourse on the event focused on the question: is this person a racist?

But does it really matter?

Are the racist (or sexist or homophobic) slurs any less impactful when the person who utters them genuinely believes he doesn't have a bigoted bone in his body?

Does the race-tinged perception of an individual as more suspicious (or any other stereotypical assessment) become less problematic if the person who looked through those biased lenses otherwise has the best of intentions?

Is the threshold for avoiding a charge of prejudice really as low as having a few Black friends? And, while we're at it, did you tell those Black people when you befriended them that they'd be serving as your get-out-of-racism-free card?

For that matter, how can we ever expect the "is s/he a racist?" question to lead to any sort of consensus? A few years ago I and a colleague published a series of studies looking at how people define "racist." The answer? We set the bar just past where we ourselves are. So what makes someone a racist? You may not know, but you do know it's not you.

Instead of arguing over who's a racist, let's shift the conversation to more important questions. Let's debate instead the underlying tensions and tendencies that contributed to Trayvon Martin's shocking death. About the implications of living in a society in which White parents rarely talk to their kids about race, but Black parents have to warn their sons to bend over backwards to avoid so much as the whiff of suspicion at the convenience store or routine traffic stop. About what it means when our laws (and our culture) shift from duty to retreat to stand your ground.

These are tough, unsettling questions. It's less threatening to ponder who is and isn't a racist, especially since we're all so confident that this label doesn't apply to us. But arguing about who the racists are–fruitless tilting at windmills that it may be–remains the easy way out because it preempts wrestling with the harder questions raised by Martin's death.

In short, I don't know whether or not George Zimmerman is a racist. And frankly, I don't much care.

I do know that Trayvon Martin's death is a tragedy.

I do know that while it's unthinkably terrible to lose a child of any background, tragedies like this one are far too likely to befall African-American families (and even when not fatal, that similar outrages and indignities are suffered daily by a wide range of people of color in this country).

And I do know that to suggest that race shouldn't be a factor in talking about Trayvon Martin's death is at the very least hopelessly naïve and at worst a disingenuous effort to change the topic to one less threatening to the status quo.

If we're ready to have a serious conversation about racial bias in America, I'm all for it. Count me in.  But that conversation can't just start and stop with empty, unresolvable arguments about "racists."

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Like this post? Then check out the website for Sam's book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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