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Trayvon Martin and the Burden of Being a Black Male

- July 16, 2013

We welcome another guest post from Corrine McConnaughy, a political scientist at The Ohio State University.


Could race could have played any role in the confrontation that resulted in Treyvon Martin’s death and in the jury’s interpretation of the evidence  that led them to acquit George Zimmerman?  Answering those questions is very hard, in part because we do not have direct, objective evidence on exactly what occurred between Martin and Zimmerman, nor statements from the jury about their thought processes. What social scientists know about race, however, questions whether even that evidence would give us the answer. “Race” can work in ways that are exceedingly difficult to detect. White opinion of blacks contains important implicit biases as well as stubbornly persistent explicit prejudice.  Although no firm conclusions are possible about Zimmerman and Martin, I will note two features of their altercation and Zimmerman’s trial that could have exacerbated implicit bias.  And I will describe new research showing how explicit prejudice toward blacks singles out black males like Trayvon Martin in particular.

Many studies have demonstrated a decline in overt racism over the last several decades.  White Americans have become less likely to say that they believe that African Americans are inherently inferior to whites, such as that they are less intelligent or hardworking than whites, and more likely to support contact with blacks, such as by living in neighborhoods with a significant number of black residents and by inter-racial marriage. Negative sentiments about blacks still exist, of course. The percentage of whites who express overt racism hovers around 20 to 30 percent. Yet, clearly many white Americans have moved past racism, making it plausible that the individuals involved in the Zimmerman trial—Zimmerman himself, the lawyers, the jurors—had no racial bias motivating their thoughts and actions.

Stopping at overt racism, however, is stopping far too short. Research on aversive racism uses implicit measurement strategies to show that even those white Americans that express racially egalitarian views are not immune from holding—and acting upon—racial prejudice. Negative implicit views are most likely to produce discriminatory or harmful behavior toward blacks when there is no social monitoring of the behavior — that is, no one is “watching” — and the behavior can be justified or rationalized based on a factor other than race. Those who are racially egalitarian on both explicit and implicit measures, however, do not engage in such behavior.

This points to a first feature of Zimmerman’s altercation: it was an interaction that was observed clearly by no one.  Witnesses could only sketch bits of what transpired that night.  None of them was visible to Zimmerman.  Other things equal, this makes it more likely that race played a role in that interaction, even if Zimmerman holds no overtly racist beliefs about blacks. Negative racial attitudes or affect of which Zimmerman may not even be aware remain untested but plausible motivations for his actions.

This brings us to the second feature: the Zimmerman trial judge’s decision to sharply limit the explicit reference to race—including denying the prosecution the ability to argue that Zimmerman engaged in racial profiling.  Studies of the legal system and aversive racism show that the less explicitly race is engaged in the discourse in the courtroom, the more likely aversive racism is to influence the decisionmaking process of the jurors. Thus, the judge’s decision also makes it more likely that race played a role in the outcome of the case.

Finally, there is the question of whether it mattered that Martin was a black male. Here we do not have to ferret out unconscious forms of racial bias.  This bias is readily evident in media coverage of crime, which disproportionately emphasizes violent crime perpetrated by non-white males and helps to increase support among white Americans for more punitive crime policies.  Such bias is also evident in public opinion.  Ismail White and I have been conducting a number of studies on the uniqueness of attitudes toward black men. In a nationally representative sample of white Americans, we find that black men are indeed considered uniquely violent. While a traditional question about racial and gender stereotyping finds that whites perceive “blacks” as more violent than “whites” and “men” as more violent than “women,” a question that asks about combinations of these identities — black men, white women, etc. — shows how black men are uniquely stigmatized.  More than 40 percent said that many or almost all black men were violent, but less than 20 percent said that of black women and white men. The figure below displays these results (with the bands indicating 95 percent confidence intervals). mcconnaughy1

We also extend one of the implicit measures of racial attitudes, the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP), to measure how white Americans view not simply blacks and whites, but men and women of each race.  As displayed in the figure below, we find that black males elicit the most negative sentiments. Indeed, those who responded the fastest to the measurement task—thus the most clearly expressed implicit bias—registered not only extremely sharp divides between black men and whites of both genders, but also made a clear distinction between black men and black women.

mcconnaughy2In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, some commentators have reflected on the social burden of black men and even asked who is afraid of (young) black men.  Our research demonstrates that black men do in fact face unique burdens — one of explicit racial blame and also the deeper scar of implicit bias. Trayvon Martin was a part of a social group that many white Americans distinctly malign. While we cannot say with certainty exactly how his race and gender mattered that fateful night in Sanford or in the subsequent trial of Zimmerman, his case offers an important opportunity to understand and perhaps start to undo this unique burden for black men.