George Zimmerman: Racist Perception Equals Self-Defense?

How Zimmerman perceived Martin has everything to do with Zimmerman's actions.

Posted Jul 11, 2013

Closing arguments in the George Zimmerman trial mean that the verdict should come soon. Many legal analysts are saying that Zimmerman will not be found guilty of murder because the defense has done a good job of showing that Trayvon Martin was an aggressor in the situation and that there is the possibility that Zimmerman killed Martin in self-defense.

To begin, we must address the race issue. A young, unarmed black male teenager is dead, and the older, multi-racial Hispanic neighborhood watchman who killed him swears that he killed Martin because he feared for his life. On Monday night, we discussed the trial on the Nancy Grace show and we speculated about what was going on in the mind of Zimmerman when he shot Martin. Had Martin truly grabbed the gun from Zimmerman and acted as if he intended to shoot Zimmerman? It’s a possibility though no hard evidence suggests that Martin truly took the gun from Zimmerman.

From a psychological perspective, it’s important to consider Zimmerman’s state of mind further. Let’s picture a couple scenarios. In the first scenario, Person A is racist, believes young black men are up to no good and cause trouble, and believes that black male troublemakers always get away with bad behavior without sufficient punishment. If Person A gets attacked by a young black man, because of his views about black men, he may perceive that he is in greater danger than he would if he were not racist. As a result, doesn’t it suggest – at least, in a common-sense way – that he may be more likely to elect a more severe intervention to ward off the perceive attacker? On the other hand, if Person B is not racist and does not endorse discriminatory beliefs about black men, it makes sense that Person B might be attacked but may not also rush to the additional determination that the attacker is going to kill him – injure, yes, but not kill.

Our lives and the sense we make of them have everything to do with the lens through which we see and approach our family, friends, coworkers, and strangers, and Martin may have been on the receiving end of racist behavior.

Based on my coverage of the trial, I hypothesize that Martin wanted to scare Zimmerman and obviously injure him, but it is a whole other story to make the leap that Martin was going to go all the way and end Zimmerman's life. The truth is that children and adults are the victims of beatings every day, but not everyone getting beaten up imagines that they're going to be killed - and thus justifies killing the other person!

How much can we trust that the jury will be objective in this case and make their decision based purely on the legal evidence? Juries do their best to follow the rules and deliberate fairly, but juries are made of living/eating/breathing people just like us. I understand that, during jury selection, jurors disclose their views on various issues, but what about unconscious beliefs? Does every racist, for example, honestly believe he or she is a racist? Of course not, because some of our beliefs fly under the conscious radar. When it comes to an issue as sensitive as race, it’s hard to trust how any juror could be completely objective.

Research that has been conducted about race issues and jury decision-making have yielded some interesting results. In particular, Sommers and Ellsworth (2001) found that, contrary to the popular notion that racially charged cases provoke biased decisions, white jurors demonstrate prejudice more often when race is not a prominent concern. As the jury in the Zimmerman trial makes its decision, let's hope for fairness.


Sommers, S. & Ellsworth, P. ( 2001). White juror bias: An investigation of prejudice against Black defendants in the American courtroom. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law,  Vol 7(1), 201-229.