Making Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, a monster will not serve the greater good for black and brown people in America. George Zimmerman was not a Strom Thurmond-racist. And even Thurmond, a States Rights, South Carolina Senator, had a black daughter. George Zimmerman mentored black children, had black cohorts, and brought an African American woman to the prom. It’s understandable that his detractors are irate at the charge of racism and feel that he had no malice toward Trayvon Martin or black people in general. Although much of the Zimmerman adulation comes from blatant racists, this is an opinion generally held by many well-meaning Americans who see themselves as part of the solution, not part of the problem. These people may have black friends, listen to black music, and for God’s sake, cried in the movie “42” about baseball hero, Jackie Robinson, who suffered Jim Crow racism painful to watch.
If you have a black friend, can you be a racist? Or as white anti-racist lecturer Tim Wise offered, if you are married to a woman, can you be a sexist?
The answer is a resounding, yes. That is not just the conjecture of liberal-minded, loopy thinking “race baiters”. That is the finding of sober and scientific study.
According to a 2009 article in Time magazine by Eben Harrell,
[a] study in the Jan. 9 issue of the journal Science presents strong evidence that even people who aspire to tolerance — who would consider themselves nonracist — still harbor unconscious biases powerful enough to prevent them from confronting overt racists or from being upset by other people’s racist behavior. The authors say the results suggest attitudes so deeply ingrained that protective legislation and affirmative-action programs are required to overcome them. The results may even offer clues as to how other societies have spiraled into genocide.
This study was not done by the Grassroots Malcolm X Project who reported that black men are killed by police every 36 hours, a study that has for the most part been ignored. No. It was orchestrated by Yale University and York University in Canada. It was a study that involved 120 nonblack students who were told that it was an experiment on team-building and problem solving. They were divided into three groups in which actors pretended to be teammates and played out a scene where a black actor bumped into a white actor. In one group the white actor said, “I hate it when black people do that.” In another group the comment was, “Clumsy n___.” In the third group there was no comment at all.
After the incident, team players were asked to choose one of the two actors as part of their team. Eighty percent of the students disapproved of the racist exchange after seeing it on video, and 75% chose the black teammate for their group. However:
The same did not hold true for the participants who experienced the racist event firsthand. None intervened to correct or disparage the white actor, nor did they report being upset by his comments when questioned later. In fact, 71% of the students chose the white actor as their partner for the assignment when he made a racist comment; a similar percentage chose the white partner when he did not make a racist comment.
Even more disturbing, a 2008 paper entitled, “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences,” appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which is published by the American Psychological Association.
This paper published the results of a study on the scientifically, psychologically engineered notion that former slaves are equated with apes, even though the culture has deferred from that characterization in the post-Jim Crow era. Of course, President Obama has been depicted as a monkey by the most rabid racists, but this study tested the resonance of this indignity in white male undergraduates. The research took place at Stanford University and Penn State over a six-year period.
…the researchers subliminally primed 115 white male undergraduates with words associated with either apes (such as “monkey,” “chimp,” “gorilla”) or big cats (such as “lion,” “tiger,” “panther”)….The subjects then watched a two-minute video clip, similar to the television program COPS, depicting several police officers violently beating a man of undetermined race. A mugshot of either a white or a black man was shown at the beginning of the clip to indicate who was being beaten, with a description conveying that, although described by his family as “a loving husband and father,” the suspect had a serious criminal record and may have been high on drugs at the time of his arrest.
If subjects thought the suspect was white, they found the beating wrong, no matter what words were used as primes. But the white male undergrads condoned the beating more often when they had been primed with ape words than with cat words. The authors of the research concluded that this finding has major repercussions in the criminal justice system because it “alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against black suspects.”
Whites may hold non-racist, moral attitudes while at the same time holding and acting upon racist stereotypes. Sounds pretty extreme. But so are the effects of unconscious bias as seen in the Trayvon Martin case. Unconscious bias can be deadly.