What were Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman thinking when they each killed an unarmed black teenager? Some say too much is being made of race in these cases and others believe racial bigotry led them to pull the trigger.
While we will never be able to read the minds of Dunn or Zimmerman, it is important for people following the case to see what mind scientists know about race, perception and violence: Race is nearly always a factor in perceiving nearly everyone, and this is rarely to the benefit of black boys.
To the first point, it is nearly impossible for anyone to be literally colorblind to race. This is because race has become a category that individuals use to sort people quickly into categories. Identifying someone’s race happens within milliseconds of looking at them and almost as quickly as noticing their age and gender.
Many will admit to seeing race, but claim to be able to forget it. While it might be well intentioned, mind scientists know that this sentiment is almost always untrue. So, let’s know this: We see race. Deal with it.
“So what?” you might say. “We physically see race. Why does that matter?”
Well, as it turns out, once race is seen, as Walter Lippmann said, the stereotypes our culture has about those groups “floods fresh vision with older images.” We literally perceive individuals differently based on their race — even if we are not racist people. In some cases, the result can be innocuous, but it can cause someone to see a white job applicant as more trustworthy than a Latino one, an Asian man as more feminine than a white one, or a black pedestrian as armed with a gun … when he is not.
Well-documented studies have found that individuals report mistakenly seeing guns in the hands of black suspects where they do not exist. This is not the case for white suspects. Importantly, prejudice did not cause these errors. Simply being aware of the stereotype and seeing an individual’s race was enough. Literally, seeing was misperceiving.
Research also demonstrates a strong tendency for people to misperceive black boys as older than they are, particularly when they are suspected of aggression or criminal mischief. That means that it is entirely possible a nervous civilian can see an unarmed black boy as an armed black man.
Whether Zimmerman was guilty (the jury found him innocent) or Dunn is (the jury was hung on the murder charge but convicted him on lesser charges), it is hard to look at the cases the same way when you understand how race affects perception.
Laws like the “Stand Your Ground” law that exist in 33 states must be examined within the context of how we “see” race. A law that cloaks a shooter in protection based on a subjective perception of “threat” is not colorblind simply because the law makes no reference to race. Instead laws that elevate an individual’s “fear of bodily harm” — as opposed to an objective analysis of whether such a threat exists — allow pervasive racial misperceptions to become imbedded in the law of self-defense, and may even encourage individuals to act more aggressively on their racialized sense of threat with virtual impunity. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis and others stand as a testament to how the subjective misperception of threat can have fatal results for black people — particularly black children.
The prosecution of shooters in these cases remains devoid of any real effort to engage the implicit racial bias issues that seem glaring and disturbing. Instead “colorblind” prosecutions deliberately ignore the likelihood that racial misperceptions play a role in how individuals perceive threat. Without an honest effort to engage the realities of race and perception, we will continue to see sanitized prosecutions in cases involving shootings laden with racial implications. And worse, we will see more black and brown children whose lives are cut short by the racially charged imagination of shooters whose misperceptions are protected by law.
Philip Goff is with UCLA’s Psychology Department and Sherrilyn Ifill is president of NAACP Legal Defense Fund. They wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune. This essay was distributed by MCT Information Services.