Trayvon Martin, Obama, and the persistence of bias

By Sally Kohn
March 21, 2012

By now the facts are well-known: Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old young black man who, on Feb. 26, 2012, was walking home from a 7-Eleven in Sanford, Florida, with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman of white and Latino heritage, though advised by police not to pursue Trayvon himself, got out of his car carrying his 9-millimeter handgun. Allegedly after some confrontation, Zimmerman shot Trayvon dead.

Should we think about this horrendous incident as a random encounter, or does it teach us something about the politics of race and the persistence of racial bias in America today?

When Zimmerman first called the police about Trayvon Martin, he said: “There’s a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, on drugs or something. It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.” Writer E.J. Graff termed this “Walking While Black.” In other words, Trayvon was presumed to be guilty of something nefarious simply because of the color of his skin.

Some who’ve listened to the tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call believe they heard him use an obscenity and a racial slur. But whether Zimmerman is an overt racist or not is largely beside the point. Focusing on relatively isolated instances of overt racism tends to obscure and excuse the very pernicious, very persistent reality of implicit racial bias that runs throughout our society — and very much shaped how the world saw Trayvon Martin and how the world sees President Obama still.

Most people don’t throw around racial epithets, let alone admit they do so to researchers. Yet we know that racial stereotypes still exist in America, leading scientists now to focus on implicit bias: unconscious mental shortcuts that we form based on our life experience as well as the stories, culture and history we absorb around us.

In one study, researchers used computers to generate several faces that were exactly the same except for the skin color — half were black and half were white. All respondents (yes, including black people studied for the project) were more likely to rate the black faces as showing greater hostility. In another study, scientists showed a group of subjects a video of one person pushing another person. When the “shover” was black and the “victim” was white, 75 percent of research subjects said the push was aggressive. When the “shover” was white and the victim was “black,” only 17 percent of subjects said the push was aggressive.

Implicit racial bias has also been found in what researchers call a “shooter bias” — in which subjects playing a simulated video game are more likely to mistakenly pull the trigger on unarmed black men than on unarmed white suspects. The phenomenon has been tested and proved with police officers, too.

Watching conservative attacks on Obama, it’s hard not to conclude that they are tainted by implicit bias. Consider: President Barack Obama is the first African-American president of the United States of America. From day one, conservatives have attacked the president’s religion, citizenship and essential patriotism. Conservatives condemned healthcare reform in general and the individual mandate in particular, even though the mandate was originally a Republican proposal. Republicans, who historically never met a tax cut they didn’t like, have opposed virtually every tax cut proposal that President Obama has put forth. Amidst high unemployment and a crumbling economy, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his number one goal was to destroy the president’s chance for re-election.

Now, I do not believe that Mitch McConnell or most Republican leaders or rank-and-file voters are overt racists. But their rhetoric often evokes the same racial animus that Zimmerman seems to have expressed. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has labeled President Obama “the most dangerous president in history.” Glenn Beck once accused President Obama of having a “deep-seated hatred of white people.” And long before he called Sandra Fluke a slut, conservative mascot Rush Limbaugh said: “Obama is an angry black guy.” The parallel imagery is clear: President Obama, like Trayvon Williams, is a dangerous, suspicious black man clearly up to no good, guilty of Governing While Black.

And implicit bias has been tested with respect to President Obama. Researchers have shown that those with high rates of implicit racial bias were not only less likely to vote for President Obama but less likely to support his healthcare reform proposal. In fact, researchers were able to demonstrate that subjects were more supportive of the exact same healthcare reform proposals if they were ascribed to President Bill Clinton as opposed to President Obama.

In his book The Trouble With Black Boys, New York University professor of education Pedro Noguera writes:

Unlike men and women from other racial and ethnic groups, Black males are rarely seen as individuals in possession of a full range of attributes and flaws, strengths and weaknesses.  The stereotypes that shape the American images of Black males are so stark and extreme that even the most ordinary and unexceptional Black males find they are forced to contend with the fantasies and fears that others hold toward them.

Trayvon Martin had a handful of Skittles. Barack Obama holds the presidential pen. But both are viewed, especially by white America, as holding weapons, and in my view, both have been mistakenly fired upon, whether with real bullets or unprecedented political vitriol.

PHOTO: An undated handout photo released by the Martin family’s public relations representative shows 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.  REUTERS/Handout


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Sally, I am deeply grateful to you for this excellent article. As catastrophic as Trayvon’s death is, for those who seek to have an open an honest dialogue, it can become the catalyst toward healing Blacks and educating whites to a social inequity that has never darkened their doorstep, but is forever present for Blacks.

Trayvon Martin was killed by long-standing doctrines that prescribe discrimination against Americans based on sociodemographic characteristics and other traits.  Trayvon Martin was killed by politicians who fail to set  policies based on a boundless respect for human life and our leaders who have  an obligation to lead society away from the disrespect of so many lives.  Trayvon Martin was killed by all who stand silent in the face of intolerance. 3/trayvon-martin-why-killing-blacks-is.h tml

Posted by FayPax | Report as abusive

The article is speculation. It’s speculation about the situation, the facts, and racism. You can choose honesty or you can choose bias. The fact that the article defines bias is ironic, don’t you think, Sally?

Posted by alim1 | Report as abusive

Your rebuttal to jmo1 is greatly flawed. The Democratic Party IS the racist party – today. It is hiding behind a mask of benevolence. What to do, what to do, when you can no longer enslave blacks? The Dems determined they would find another way to control them. Load them up on freebies. Make welfare the staple of their lives. How exactly HAS the Democratic Party helped blacks prosper and reduced racism? How? It hasn’t. It doesn’t. It won’t. Not until the federal government stops pandering to groups and starts following Constitutional law that deals only with the rights of the ‘individual’. When the government says they are here to help ‘a group’ it is because they have found a way to ‘use them’ to their advantage. The Civil Rights Act was a mandate by the federal government to force people to get along. Force creates force, not cooperation. How is cooperation through force working for America regarding racism? How is it that England, who effectively and efficiently ended slavery, avoided a civil war and put the damper down on racism, was able to do so in the 1800′s, while America still flounders today? Does England have a welfare state? Does England and the other Scandanavian and European countries in the slave trade have issues with racism against blacks even remotely comparable with America today? Why not? Need help with that one, let me know.

Posted by alim1 | Report as abusive

Flashrooter: Have you ever heard of exit polls? 90% black vote was a conservative number. According to Politico, it was 96%. Regardless, I understand black voter turnout for the first African-American President. As details rollout on this case, it seems more and more apparent that Zimmerman (why suddenly a half-white and hispanic person is suddenly considered “White?” I know several mixed race kids to be considered the minority race rather than White-whatever) anyway, it seems Zimmerman was more of a power hungry person (cop wannabe) who was looking for either glory or a fight. I don’t think it would have mattered what race the other person would have been. He was going to confront someone that night, unfortunately, it just so happened to be TM that crossed his path. I’m hispanic and I think he would have chased me with a gun and probably shot me. Would there be an outcry then?

This author politicized this event into a politics-race matter. Racial bias will be around in the U.S because we have so many races living here. It does not mean everyone acts on their preferences out of malice. If we were all the same skin color, then eye-color bias would be an issue. Presently, the black panthers put a bounty on Zimmerman. Where is Ms. Kohn’s lecture to that organization? This country has the potential to be better despite racial bias as long as we vote for the character of the person in office, not the skin color. For those who can’t do that, I sincerely doubt they will matter in the end.

Posted by jmo1 | Report as abusive

I don’t even want to get started with the Presidential problems.I would however like to give my 2 cents about the Trayvon incident.
When I first heard the story on the news I was under the impression that Trayvon was a 14 year old that looked more like an 11 year old because of his build and size.That he walked down to the store bought some candy and a drink,was chased and shoot down by a wanna-be cop who was racist.
Honestly my first thoughts where there has to be more to the story. Now I’ve heard Trayvon was 17 they fought before the shooting,there’s a witness seeing Trayvon atop Zimmerman and then later seeing Trayvon laying in grass dead after calling 911 then looking back out his window.Also Trayvon has been in trouble at school for having a sack of weed.
My thoughts are there’s still alot we don’t know about this situation.The mainstream media should be ashamed.Trying to push the people in a certain direction with trickery and not having all the facts.Maybe Zimmerman was acting in selfdefense,and was doing his duty to the best of his ability as a member of their neighberhood watch.Why won’t the media show a picture of Trayvon at 17 and a recent picture of Zimmerman?It will be interesting to find out more of the facts about this situation.

Posted by bryans | Report as abusive

Ugh, as details rollout about the case, it seems this case was bungled from the start. May have been a case of following procedure rather than a racial thing. Politics is one thing, but commenting opinion on an ongoing investigation and not knowing really any details is a mistake. It’s a travesty for both parties.

Posted by jmo1 | Report as abusive

I am so sick and tired of everything that is towards a black person is a hate crime. Anything measures taken towards anyone, no matter of color race gender etc should be labeled a hate crime if that word needs to be used. Like the white boy walking home from school,2 black boys pour gasoline on him, set him on fire and say “You get what you deserve whitey” Now is that a hate crime?? Or is that just 2 boys that didn’t know any better because of their raising??

Posted by IntegrityFirst | Report as abusive

flashrooter, your proof of the racial bias towards Obama is laughable. Not being born in America makes him what race, seeing that America is the birthplace of every possible mixture of skin colors? Saying he is a Muslim makes him what race, since Muslim is a religion practiced by many, not a race? A socialist you say, and that in turn makes him what? Russian, Cuban, Chinese, Korean, what? You are just another individual that wants to put race into the fight when it doesn’t need to be there. The whole issue of 96% of blacks voting for Obama makes them racist doesn’t it? I mean many have openly stated voting for him because he is black which means they discriminated against the non-black candidate for his skin color. The left controls the black vote by controlling them through their emotions. They have successfully diverted attention away from any real issues and have divided this country more than it has been in the last 20 years.

Posted by blahblah87 | Report as abusive

I would like to know why Zimmerman makes racial comments and becomes a white hispanic while Obama is never refered to as white black? The most important thing is the fact that a young man lost his life. Not the color of his killer.

Posted by BellVolkswagon | Report as abusive

Seriously? At the bottom of your little column, it says “PHOTO: An undated handout photo released by the Martin family’s public relations representative shows 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.”

Come on, I’m on a laptop, wearing out-of-date glasses, and I can tell it’s a damn Photoshop edited picture. There’s no way in hell anyone, regardless of age, would have legs that size, with skinny little arms like that, and, oh yeah, the grass and helmet look like clip art additions. Please start using recent photos of Mr. Martin, instead of these pictures that are obviously aimed at making the victim look like a small, defenseless child. We know he was a kid, no reason to fake his youthfulness to us, show us the real Trayvon Martin photos!

Posted by whatsittoyou | Report as abusive

You really shouldnt open an article with an outright lie. The facts where not already known. There had been complaints that facts where withheld by the prosecution. Ben Kruidbos form the State has confirmed that was in fact true , and has been wrongfully fired for it. Martin had been trying to buy an illegal firearm at age 17, his cell phone indicates he was definitely involved in the drug trade, and possibly other criminal activity. Martin had as his friend testified an anti-white (cracker) bigotry. This was no innocent boy, and yes the hoodie wearing is relevant indication he was hiding his face as habit, in central Florida there are less than 20 days a year cool enough for such attire. This is the last thug any Reverend should rally around. Kind of shows how manipulative Sharpton is, its protests have nothing to with justice, they involve a sentiment that blacks should be free from answering to justice, and that whether you can deal with or not is what is wrong with race relations in the United States. I wonder if it is not the same in Britain. It should never be crime to defend yourselves against a thug, there should have never been a trial. Now that facts are coming out of what a thug Treyvon Martin really was his family will suffer worse than during the charade of law that brought Zimmerman to trial.

Posted by DegreedWhiteGuy | Report as abusive