Sunday, July 21, 2013

Racial Bias and the Lenses We Use to Interpret Zimmerman's Trial

I was in Georgia when I first heard the story of Trayvon Martin's death, though a few days earlier I'd glimpsed the headline on a newspaper that had been delivered to my hotel room in St Louis. After a week on the road, traveling first to St Louis for an academic conference and then to Georgia to visit a campus where I'd been accepted into a PhD program, I wasn't paying much attention to the news.

So my first real exposure to the story involved seeing African American student protesters in GA, who were holding up signs that called for justice. This was all before Zimmerman had even been arrested, a factor that horrified a national audience who knew all of the incriminating details (such as Zimmerman being told by a 911 dispatcher not to pursue the young man in the hoody) without knowing about the fist fight that would eventually clear Zimmerman's name in court, if not in the public eye.

At the time, I couldn't have imagined how polarizing this case would become in national discourse. Even after hearing details about Zimmerman's injuries and the fist fight that he was using as his justification for shooting and killing Trayvon, it seemed clear that there was enough evidence to at least pursue a criminal trial. Whether Zimmerman was ultimately determined guilty or not guilty in court, the situation merited that day in court. And the local law enforcement's delay in arresting and charging him disturbed me because it was hard not to interpret that oversight through the lens of our nation's historical distrust of black men and disregard for their lives.

It takes little research to uncover that history, a history not nearly so far in the past as most white Americans like to think. And it doesn't take much observation to note the bias with which so many friends and acquaintances treat the phrase "big black guy" as a redundant description of African American and black men. And so what has disturbed me about this situation, more than the outcome of this one individual trial, are the dismissive remarks I've heard others make, where some have even claimed that Zimmerman was only tried because he was not black.

Such remarks reflect great ignorance about American history, including recent history and the role that even subtle racial bias plays in the way Americans make decisions that affect other people. Decisions ranging from which job applicant to hire, to which contestant on The Voice to vote for, to how much pain killer a patient will need. And we're often unaware of the role these biases play, because the bias is only one factor in how we interpret a situation. So it's easy to focus on the other factors in the situation and never recognize that we'd have preferred a different job applicant if only she had lighter skin.

As a white American, I understand that it can feel exhausting to be reminded of our racial privilege and to be frequently asked to recognize that privilege and change our actions accordingly. I recall how I felt the first time a black friend held white Americans as a group responsible for what had been done to her ancestors - we were both ten years old when we had that conversation, and it was not the most eloquent discussion to ever take place. I recall replying, "I know, and it's terrible," while inwardly feeling a bit frustrated by being blamed for things I had not contributed to as a ten-year-old child.

But I also recall the conversation my entire fourth grade class had when that friend was called the N-word by a stranger at a gas station in our rural New England town. And I recall hearing my father and his mother refer to black people as "darkies" or even by the N-word on one occasion. And when I came to college and a friend from North Carolina told me that as individuals black people could be wonderful but that "when they're in large groups they turn violent," another friend from South Carolina insisted that I simply didn't understand his remarks because I wasn't from the South. I can attest that southern states do not have a monopoly on racism or on the ability to recognize it.

And my perspective was necessarily expanded when for three of my years in college I lived with a black roommate, who first of all insisted that I add "black" back into my vocabulary, since not all black people are American and not all black Americans identify as African American. And I heard stories from her about the struggles her mother went through to get medical treatment for teenage sons whom inner city doctors assumed to be high and not ill. And I heard a very complicated take on Rudy Giuliani's efforts to decrease crime in NYC, efforts that were largely effective but at the cost of harassing innocent black men and even turning a blind eye in cases where police officers killed innocent black men.

And when I dated a black man while living in Utah, I saw the looks strangers sometimes gave us when we were in public. And one night when I had stayed on campus late and he jogged to campus to walk me home so I wouldn't be in any danger, I watched as a security guard ignored the other students who were leaving campus along with us and focused on me and the man I was dating. As we held hands and laughed together, the security guard trailed us for awhile before approaching to ask, "Everything okay?" Before that incident, this man had expressed fear of being falsely accused of assaulting a white woman, and I had rolled my eyes because I didn't understand the vulnerable position in which the color of his skin left him.

So if you're a white person who's tempted to think that we're living in a post-racial America or that racism would fade away all together if black people simply forgot about events that happened to their parents and grandparents, that might just be because you're enjoying the privilege of not being followed across a crowded parking lot simply because you have darker skin than the woman you're walking home late at night. In other words, it might be the racial privilege you're denying which is preventing you from seeing that privilege in the first place.

In the following video, Obama gives what I think is a fair but helpful response to the national dialogue surrounding this trial. What's of most interest to me is the first ten minutes or so when he explains the type of heightened scrutiny that most black American and African American men experience regularly and which white people tend to simply overlook.

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