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Zimmerman Trial: Why Race Matters in America

Aftermath of Zimmerman Acquittal Spotlights Illusion of a "Post Racial" America

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal, social media went berserk in both directions—supporters and naysayers. One particular tweet that caught my attention noted that Paula Deen has fallen from grace from reportedly having used the “n” word, but Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager and was acquitted. So we can’t voice racially offensive language, because that obviously puts racism on display (and as a “post-racial” America, aren’t we over that kind of language?), but race recedes in the background of a violent act even when the victim is black and the perpetrator isn’t because we can’t prove that his race was the impetus for the attack?

The judge allowed the attorneys to use the term “profiling” in reference to what Zimmerman did, but not, racial profiling. And indeed, during the trial itself, race was not explicit enough in the prosecution’s case. Sometimes, what remains unsaid is more compelling than what is said. Which leads me to wonder if what a “post-racial” America really means is that we are less honest in confronting the role race has played not only historically but through the present day in this culture.

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To those who believe that this case was not at least partially race related, one must distinguish between explicit and implicit attitudes. One may explicitly reject stereotypes or prejudicial attitudes and still maintain implicit ones, without awareness of this discrepancy. The way that stereotypes can be so quickly activated implicitly and unconsciously suggests that race absolutely played a role in the shooting. This is where the lack of integration of scientific research on the part of the prosecution left a significant gap in what may have motivated the perpetrator’s perception of Martin as a threat. For instance, an article in UCLA Law Review reflects on the role implicit (e.g. not conscious) perceptions may play in shootings when the researchers summarize:

A growing body of research on “shooter bias” reveals that, as a result of implicit bias, both White and Black Americans are more likely to shoot unarmed Black men than unarmed White men (Feingold & Lorang, 2012, para 1).

Moreover, the researchers note that a person may harbor an implicit bias—meaning a perception that operates below their regular level of consciousness—without deliberately or explicitly being racist. Research such as this one strongly suggests that the threat that Zimmerman perceived was driven at least in part by Martin's race, and that Zimmerman’s response in using a gun as a method of self-defense was disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Indeed, the research goes on to link a strong connection between implicit bias and guns.

The death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent Zimmerman acquittal may serve as cautionary tales for our culture and as a significant reminder that race very much still plays a prominent role in interpersonal interactions and perceptions, perhaps more so than we are willing to admit explicitly. The illusion of America having become “post-racial” must be dispelled. As the researchers in this article attest to, “States, responsible for laws regulating gun ownership and use, must help defuse implicit bias before it becomes deadly” (Feingold & Lorang, 2012, para 1). Unfortunately, the combination of gun ownership laws in Florida, the Stand Your Ground Law in particular (the most egregious example of Culture of Honor norms in action) and the reported ambiguity of what led to the confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin that night, created a perfect storm for Zimmerman to not be held accountable for his act of violence. Many values of America have been on display during and in the aftermath of the trial, but I fear that ultimately, with this verdict, justice was not served.

Feingold, J., & Lorang, K. (2012). Defusing Implicit Bias. UCLA Law Review, Volume 60(4). Retrieved on July 14, 2013 from: http://www.uclalawreview.org/?p=3704 .

Copyright 2013 Azadeh Aalai

 

Azadeh Aalai, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland and an adjunct at George Washington University. She is the author of Understanding Aggression. more...

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