Melissa Harris-Perry made a profound statement after President Obama's commented saying that 35 years ago, Trayvon Martin could have been him. MHP said that 35 years from now Trayvon Martin could have been Barack Obama, in that Trayvon could have become the President of the United States. Some interesting points have been made as a result of the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer. Forbes contributor, Todd Essig, probably has asks the best question yet. Forward this article to anyone questioning the merits of racial profiling in this case.
The only way to have a conversation about race that does not get co-opted and polarized by politicians is to have the conversation. So, I’d like to bring up a question: If as President Obama said “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago” could you, or I, have been George Zimmerman? My answer—and I hope to hear yours—includes psychological factors both disturbing and optimistic. Disturbing because implicit or unconscious racial bias is still pervasive regardless of conscious attitudes. Optimistic because we do not have to act on the automatic firing of these biases. We can think and use good judgment; by not taking feelings to be facts and by reflecting before acting we really can encourage the better angels of our nature.
Implicit racial biases rage against black men everywhere. The President cited how they operate in his experience: black men followed in stores, women clutching their handbags when a black man enters an elevator, car doors clicking locked when a black man walks across the street.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that these racial biases only live in the minds of others. No one is exempt. If you lie down in wet paint you’re going to get dirty and given America’s racial context, well, implicit racial biases are pretty much inevitable. For a personal experience go to the Project Implicit website and take the Race Bias test. When I took the test I scored the same as 70% of people on the web-site. I showed an automatic preference for White people compared to Black people. In fact, I was in the top 27% who showed a strong automatic preference. And this is so despite strong conscious attitudes and behaviors favoring equality.
Unconscious racial biases are apparently everywhere, even among professionals trained not to exhibit them and in contexts designed to eliminate their influence. Given this pervasive power is it any wonder that an untrained, angry man with an agenda and a gun in his waist-band noticed a young black man, a child really, walking through his community and immediately felt threatened? And this biased perception is understandable. He had no control over it. However, this does not make Zimmerman less responsible; it makes him more. He should have known better than to act on a biased perception. He should have known that a feeling is not a fact, that his mind was creating a threat of criminal intent, and that no responsible adult should act on what is essentially a psychological illusion.
Unconscious racist biases do not make you a bad person. They are not a source of shame. They are for those raised in this place and at this time nearly inevitable. The source of my optimism, and what partly differentiates us from Zimmerman, is that they are also an opportunity for self-knowledge, however uncomfortable that knowledge may be.
Zimmerman’s shame is not that he felt Treyvon was a threat. The problem is that he believed his biased feelings accurately represented reality. He should have called them into question. His shame, and the source of this tragedy, is not what happened to him unconsciously. It was his mindless acceptance of his bias. Even a modicum of self-awareness would have saved the life of a promising young man. And Florida’s shame is arming such a man, empowering him to stand his ground.