Implicit Bias and Trayvon’s Legacy

This pieces was originally posted on the YWCA USA Blog

The racial implications of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal are undeniable and are commanding a much-needed response. The public debate thus far has focused on overt racism. I contend, however, that overt racism alone didn’t kill Trayvon Martin. Implicit bias was a key accomplice in Trayvon’s death.

Tara Andrews, Esq.

Tara Andrews, Esq.

Implicit bias is a subtle and more pervasive form of bias that people hold against others simply because they belong to a particular group, defined by race or other immutable factors. As opposed to overt acts of discrimination, implicit bias takes the form of unconscious attitudes and motivations that are deep-rooted, automatic and invisible to the person who holds them. Consequently, people are not even aware that their actions are biased. To them, their actions are rational and justified.

Implicit bias also renders us blind to the other group’s legitimacy and value. It’s not that we see them and hate them. We see them as people unlike ourselves, as “the other,” which colors how we interpret what they do and say. We may not even register their presence—until their presence triggers our unconscious assumptions about who is valid or legitimate in a particular context.

Implicit bias was hard at work on February 26, 2012. That night, Trayvon Martin was a typical teenager, huddled underneath a hoodie in drizzly weather, chatting on his cell phone with his girlfriend, on the way back to his auntie’s house. That same night, before and after the shot was fired, George Zimmerman was a man acting out of his implicit biases. We ask how Zimmerman could stalk and kill an unarmed child, and then claim self-defense.  The chilling answer is that Zimmerman never saw Trayvon the child. He saw only “the other,” someone with no legitimate reasons of his own to be where he was, when he was.

Implicit bias continued to work even as the facts struggled to come to light. The investigation into Trayvon’s death was delayed and diminished because the police and prosecuting authorities were never fully able to see beyond what Zimmerman saw. The witnesses to Trayvon’s death, as well as the jury at Zimmerman’s trial, heard and saw what they did through their own implicit biases. Zimmerman’s defense strategy piped to these biases, and the prosecution was ill-equipped to stop the music.

The injustice done to Trayvon is not an isolated incident. Every day on the streets of where I live, Baltimore, good-hearted, morally-upright white people never see the real Trayvons. Implicit bias blinds them to these Trayvons’ value and legitimacy. In this regard, every black boy and young black man is indeed Trayvon Martin, and their lives are as much at risk as Trayvon’s was that night.

The risk extends beyond the streets into classrooms and courts, emergency rooms and corporate suites. People of color are perceived as “the other,” and exiled to a place outside the “circle of concern” that whites inhabit by default. That this exclusion is unintentional, automatic and unexamined underscores the danger and urgency of the matter.

Overt racism alone didn’t kill Trayvon Martin. Implicit bias helped to kill Trayvon, and will help kill hundreds, even thousands more Trayvons until this nation summons the courage to acknowledge, confront and disempower implicit bias.

This is where Trayvon’s death does not have to be in vain. Like Emmitt Till and the four little girls in Birmingham, Trayvon’s death has struck a discordant chord within the white community. Many whites are extremely disturbed by Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. They struggle to explain to their children what has happened, because they don’t fully understand it themselves.

Repressing or soothing this confusion and discomfort would be a deadly mistake. Now is the time for white people to give voice to it and for people of color to engage with them in hard, soul-searching and ultimately life-saving conversations. We cannot undo what happened in Florida, but we can take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen in Baltimore and beyond. Through open, honest, and courageous communication, we can bring implicit biases to the surface and disarm them. We have the power to make this Trayvon’s legacy—one family, one neighborhood, one church, one workplace and one classroom at a time.

Tara Andrews, Esq., is Board President of the YWCA Greater Baltimore. The YWCA Greater Baltimore is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. Follow them on Twitter, @YWCABaltimore 

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