Putting Casual Racism on Trial

How silence on race intensified racism in the George Zimmerman trial.

By Aura Bogado Jul 18, 2013

During her now-infamous CNN appearance, Zimmerman case Juror B37 made clear that, in her opinion, most people would have reacted the way that George Zimmerman did the night he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. If she meant that a good number of people would perceive the black male teenager being followed as the aggressor rather than an innocent kid walking home from the store, she might actually be right. That’s because most people unconsciously employ what’s called implicit bias–an automatic negative perception of some people, along racial lines. 

In an era when overt racism is stigmatized, people are reluctant to admit to their prejudices, not only to one another but also to themselves. That stigma makes it even harder to grapple with the prospect of hidden racial bias. But research shows that denying or pretending that deep-seated racism doesn’t exist ultimately serves to intensify the problem

If you don’t believe it, try taking an implicit bias test. Created by scientists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington, this tool measures your automatic racial bias and preferences. The results of your individual test might surprise you; while many people honestly believe that they hold no negative associations based on race, it’s often untrue. And those negative biases don’t just rest on our minds–they can also forecast our behavior.

According to Rachel Godsil, research director of the American Values Institute and a law professor at Seton Hall, negative associations tend to flow from structural inequalities that are reinforced by media representations.

Godsil cites, for example, how drug use is evenly distributed among different racial groups but black people are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for possession. "The media sometimes skews things in ways that overemphasize [the criminality] of a particular group," she says. "There’s an echo chamber between structural inequality, media portrayal and individual implicit bias."

When the Zimmerman jury was provided evidence that black men had previously been implicated in burglaries, it likely tapped in to an implicit bias  that would render Trayvon Martin a criminal, despite the fact he was not the one on trial, he was unarmed, and he was walking around in the neighborhood he was staying in at the time. 

As pervasive as implicit bias tends to be, it doesn’t mean everyday people are powerless to do anything to combat it. Studies indicate that doctors, for example, provide better and safer care to white patients than to black ones–except that, once they’re told that doctors tend to do so they positively modify their behavior towards equity. It makes sense: Doctors, who dedicate their lives to helping others, can only guard against implicit bias once they first accept that it exists.  And it’s not just true of doctors.

peer-reviewed  University of Michigan study involving mock criminal trials found that "white jurors (and by extension white police officers, white judges, white lawyers, etc.) still demonstrate bias in cases where racial issues are not emphasized…." But when race is declared a salient issue, white jurors aren’t negatively influenced by the race of a defendant. In other words, talking about the possibility of prejudice helps individuals inhibit their racial biases.   

During her interview, Juror B37 insisted that race played no role in what happened the night George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. If research about the way people unconsciously engage racial biases is correct however, the outcome may have been quite different–and the jury could have perhaps taken more seriously their duty to remain truly impartial, rather than partial to their unconscious biases about black teenage boys.