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Monday, March 12, 2012

Bias Matters: Trayvon Martin

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Trayvon Martin
Bias matters. It has real consequences that can mean the difference between life and death.

On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed outside his father's house in a Florida gated community. He was just a teenager, returning home from buying candy. But the neighborhood watchman considered him 'suspicious,' and shot the unarmed boy. The gunman confessed. There are witnesses. No arrests have been made. 

George Zimmerman
The shooter, George Zimmerman, claims self defense. But the fact that he pursued Martin in a car (after the police told him to back off) and fired on an unarmed minor, makes his claim dubious. Police video (released over a month after the event) shows Zimmerman with no major injuries. So why has no progress been made on this case? Shouldn't the self-defence claim at least be vetted in court?

The police involved in Martin's case have made a judgement about the character of the killer, and they feel Zimmerman's not worth pursuing (despite a previous arrest for police battery). Consistently, cases are more likely to go unsolved when they involve black victims. It's a neglect of duty that fails to bring justice for Martin's murder, in way that is less likely for white victims.

Listen to the chilling 911 call that Zimmerman makes just before murdering Martin. Some choice moments: "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something...These ***holes always get away." To Zimmerman, Martin 'looked suspicious,' and how he looked got him killed. 

If Martin were white would he even be dead at all? Probably not. Everyday people of color across the country are disproportionately suspected of crime based on their race and police bias has lead to fatalities on numerous occasions.  

Shoot, or don't shoot?
In addition, experience tells us, that had the races been reversed, Martin would almost certainly be in jail for the rest of his life. Almost 50% of prisoners serving life sentences, and 38% of all prisoners, are black (iconograph). These numbers reflect neither total US population demographics (less than 13% black), nor the demographics of actual crime being committed (eg. marijuana convictions). 

What was going through Zimmerman's mind as he followed his 'suspect' from the safety of a car? We'll never know for sure, but it's certain that he was exposed to the racial smog that we all encounter on a daily basis: he saw the over-representation of criminalized black folk on TV shows, he heard the racialized fear mongering in the news media, he lived in a culture with a long history of demonizing black men. 

Years later, this murder still matters
In that split second decision, Zimmerman believed that an unarmed black boy was more dangerous than an armed man inside a vehicle. It turns out, most people would make the same choice. Try this 'Shoot/Don't Shoot' simulation for yourself (see post: I Am George Zimmerman).

If you were to ask Zimmerman, I'm sure he'd tell you he's not racist; he's 'colorblind.' He may have biases, but he's 'basically a good person', and never means to be prejudiced (same for the police officers covering the case). That's what matters, right? But this situation is a clear demonstration that often 'intent' really doesn't matter. Martin is dead. And Zimmerman's intentions just don't seem that relevant

But apparently, the media doesn't think any of it's relevant at all! News outlets have been reticent to cover the story and weeks have gone by without any major publicity. Why? For the same reason that missing children of color garner so much less media attention than kidnapped white children (See post: Missing Children).  Some stories are simply more important to them than others

We are all breathing in a racial smog. Though we may not end up killing anyone, these subtle biases affect our daily decisions and behavior. What are you doing to combat yours? 

Had you heard about Martin's story? How do you think the incident would have been handled in your neighborhood? Want to take action? Here are three ways you can.

Follow more conversations about racial justice and Christianity through email or RSS feed.


  1. Classic example of media bias, complete with a 'non-apology' claiming that they 'didn't intend racism.' But this stuff matters folks, and regardless of intentions, ads like these carry serious effects!

  2. Just keep hounding at this. DO NOT let it go away. 

  3. This isn't just a tragic story but evidence of the real world in which many black males live in America. stories like this make me fear for my brother, my dad, my friends.... 

    For example, a couple months ago the building managers of my apt sent an email to everyone saying to watch out for an armed black male due to a robbery in the area that morning. My first instinct was not fear regarding the robbery, but fear for my younger brother who would be visiting that day. Never mind how the black males who lived in the building might have felt... 

    For Zimmerman to shoot this boy & not even get charged due to a self defense claim says to me that black males are inherently suspicious, dangerous, presumed guilty, always en-route to a crime....

    It's not true. 
    I can't accept that. 
    We can't accept that. 
    This is why we're fighting for justice in this case. 

  4. Want to take action? Here's a petition circulating form

  5. Jay Smooth is a little late with his commentary, but still has good things to add to the conversation:


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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