I have been struggling to write about the George Zimmerman verdict while I got my thoughts together. Unfortunately, even though this post has been in draft since 7/15, my thoughts still aren’t together.
We have a hard time talking about race in the US, calmly or otherwise, and the Zimmerman case was absolutely about race. From one side the verdict was vindication for a man trying to do the right thing under a Stand Your Ground law, from the other side it is evidence of a justice system stacked against minorities.
It feels like a miscarriage of justice to me for several reasons the first one being that Zimmerman violated the rule of self-preservation by getting out of his car to pursue Trayvon Martin whom he perceived to be a threat. Even a basic concept of fairness supports that it’s not “self-defense” if you go in search of trouble. Zimmerman made a choice, did not have to get out of his car, but he did.
The Why? Zimmerman got out of the car is trickier. Maybe because he felt he had a “duty” to his neighborhood, because he felt empowered by his gun, or because he suspected Martin was “up to no good” because of how he looked and acted. Any or all of these may be true but its clear that Zimmerman felt he had cause and the right to follow Martin.
The profiling that Zimmerman did, calling Martin suspicious because he wasn’t walking quickly in the rain, seemed to stem primarily from how Martin was dressed – like a black teenager – in jeans and a hoodie. Martin’s profiling happened because black teenagers were seen previously in Zimmerman’s neighborhood breaking into houses, hence the neighborhood watch.
Prima facie it is reasonable for Zimmerman to jump to the conclusion that a kid he doesn’t know, strolling through his development wearing a hoodie is up to no good. The problem is, built into that reasonable assumption, there is a deeper and more troubling assumption that the hoodie itself signals “up to no good”. This is where race comes in.
Whether Zimmerman himself profiled Martin because of his hoodie is almost immaterial in light of the societal profiling of black men and boys. Plenty of racial profiling goes on with black women and girls as well, but I am setting that aside for this post.
Operating from our biases is a daily part of human life. It allows us to make benign choices, like chocolate or vanilla ice cream, or use criteria like male/female or young/old, when choosing a doctor. These choices, based on personal preference, don’t impact society at large. I like female doctors because they have the same body I do, but there are still plenty of patients for the male doctors.
However, some choices are impacted by unconscious biases which are kissin cousins to prejudice and racism.
The expectation that black boys & men are more likely to be criminals or “up to no good” is a bias, conscious or unconscious, that stems from a systemic racism in our justice system, media and public narrative. This means that individual acts may not appear to be informed by unconcious bias or systemic racism, but research tells a different story (happy to point you to longitudinal Harvard studies).
This is the part folks sometimes don’t get – unconscious bias means that you don’t know that you don’t know.
The people on the receiving end of unconscious bias are the ones who know. Those black boys & men who say they are followed in stores, pulled over by police and generally have all of their actions viewed through a lens of fear and criminal intent, they are the experts on their lived experience. So a good kid has to be an even better kid – and dress to impress – and still might experience racist behavior.
This post is a rambly mess. A mess that resembles the national narrative swirling over the Zimmerman verdict because it is so complex. A narrative that is equal parts rational information and emotional interpretation. The last thing I want to say about the Zimmerman verdict, for this post at least, is that I have an overwhelming desire to tell all boys and men of color to stop wearing hoodies.
That smacks of blame the victim I know, but I want to be public about my biases too. I’m not perfect. I want these boys & men to not be judged by their clothing but I know that brown skin + hoodie = suspicion. So don’t wear the hoodie! Without going all “Talented Tenth” I want the trappings of gang culture, whether adopted via hiphop stylizing or the real deal, to lose its stranglehold on youth.
Humans judge a person within seconds. Lightening fast information processing takes in your gender, skin color, age, attitude and status. Friend or foe. Its how we are biologically wired. So why stack the deck by signifying danger through wearing clothing that allows you to hide your face?
My conflicted thoughts are a small corner of a big picture. I’m just pessimistic enough to think that changing hearts and minds to accept brown skin + hoodie is impossible, and optimistic enough to think getting folks to drop the hoodie might help a little bit.
Trayvon Martin, as a US citizen, had the right to walk from the store to a house wearing whatever clothing he wanted. Trayvon Martin, as a black teenager wearing a hoodie, had a different set of rights.
I’m just going to hit the publish button. Apologies for the ramble.