Race Undercover: The Matter of Bias in the Zimmerman Trial

Two weeks after George Zimmerman's trial in the death of Trayvon Martin ended in acquittal, Juror B29, the only woman of color identified as Maddy, says George Zimmerman got away with murder, while Juror B37, a white woman, believes he did nothing wrong. Both agree that race played no role in the case. Doesn't this settle the issue of whether race was involved in this case?

Not quite. Just as Maddy mistakenly believed that without intent, there could be no murder under the law, it would be wrong to think that in the absence of intent, racial biases cannot still leave their mark. While our conscious views about race are not irrelevant, there is a lot of evidence that race was likely operating undercover.

Surveys report that many Americans genuinely care about racial equality. But just as the human body is thirsty long before the brain registers thirst, racial bias can lurk outside of one's awareness shaping attitudes, perceptions and behaviors. For some time now, social psychologists have documented how implicit racial biases affect all of us. Some of these biases are particularly relevant to Trayvon's death and Zimmerman's acquittal.

In 1947, when Truman was president and Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, psychologists used a basic experiment to examine the relationship between Blackness and perceived criminality. Psychologists showed people pictures of a White man with a razor threatening a Black man on the subway and later asked them to recall what they saw. Surprisingly, people tended to mistakenly recall that it was the Black man wielding the razor against the White man.

Sixty years later, a new generation of psychologists with more sophisticated methods converged on the same finding associating race and crime. In one study led by Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, people watched a computer screen that was initially grainy. As the screen cleared, they were tasked with pressing a button the second they recognized an object. The objects were either "crime relevant" (e.g., a gun or a knife) or "crime irrelevant" (e.g., a camera or a book).

Unbeknownst to the participants, pictures of a face were flashed so quickly that viewers were not consciously aware that they saw it. After being primed with a Black face, participants more quickly detected the knife or the gun than the camera or the book. When primed with a White face, there was no such time difference.

Decades of research tell a similar story about the strong association between Blackness and crime. Blackness leads people to evaluate ambiguously assertive behavior as aggressive, quickens the speed at which people decide to shoot someone holding a weapon, and increases the probability that someone would discharge a weapon at all.

Together, these and other studies could explain why Zimmerman perceived Trayvon to be suspicious as well as mortally dangerous. Zimmerman needn't be an intentional racist for his actions to reflect these racial biases. He could be an ordinary, normal and well-intentioned neighbor.

These dynamics could have played themselves out on the jury as well. That is, some members of the jury, could share the same implicit biases associating Black people with criminality and violence. Juror B37's interpretation of Trayvon's actions as an alleged attack on Zimmerman rather than an effort to defend himself from an armed stranger not only reflects the tendency to perceive Blacks as aggressive, but it also implicates what psychologists call attribution error and empathy deficit.

This perceptual bias is not just a matter of the juror's personal views: the decision about whether Zimmerman or Martin was legitimately exercising self-defense is a legal inquiry central to the case. In Juror B37s eyes, Trayvon was a belligerent man in a hoodie determined not to let Zimmerman "get one over on him." The juror was unable to see what would have seemed obvious had Trayvon been white and Zimmerman an armed black man: Trayvon likely feared for his life.

The fact that Juror-B29 is Puerto Rican who identifies as Black Hispanic or that Zimmerman identified himself as Latino or non-white does not immunize them from these biases. Research has shown that while people of color tend to have less intense negative associations between Blackness and negative traits like criminality, many still have implicit biases as well.

Other racial dynamics could explain the jury's verdict. Psychologists have demonstrated that the racial composition of the jury shapes deliberations. Studies led by Sam Sommers show that in cases involving Black perpetrators or victims, the mere presence of a Black juror, even one who remains silent, causes White jurors to ask questions about whether race played a role.

On the flipside, the absence of Black jurors dramatically reduces the likelihood that the jury will mention race. Race is not irrelevant in these cases; it is simply suppressed. This would help to explain the jurors claim that the jury did not discuss race.

There is, of course, a question of what these studies mean with respect to a Puerto Rican who both identifies as Hispanic and has reported experiencing racialized suspicion (i.e., being followed in department stores, like President Obama). Clearly, it is not the case that this jury was all-white, nor did it include someone who was unambiguously perceived as Black (like for example, Rachel Jeantel). Indeed, it highlights the need for more research that considers the complex racial position of Latinos, who are at times coded as "off-white," at other times "non-white," and yet again, for some groups in particular, as Afro-descendant.

The tragic killing of Trayvon cannot be undone, but we have a responsibility to understand how what happened that day and how the jury's interpretation of events may have been informed by race. At the very least, that entails considering what science tells us about how race operates before dismissing the idea that race mattered out of hand. Surely we can all agree on that.

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