Why there will be another Trayvon

Racial bias is structural, not merely personal, and until we think about it that way, the status quo will not change

February 26, 2014 8:00AM ET
People stand together during the "March for Peace" at Ives Estate Park in honor of the late Trayvon Martin on Feb. 9, 2013, in Miami, Fla. Martin was killed by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012, while Zimmerman was on neighborhood watch patrol in the gated community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It has been two years to the day since George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. The shooting and Zimmerman’s eventual murder acquittal triggered a painful, impassioned, at times even exhausting discussion about the state of race and racism in this country. More recently, the trial of Michael Dunn, the shooter of another unarmed black teenager, Jordan Davis, ended in a hung jury on the murder charge. (Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted murder for continuing to fire at Davis’ associates after Davis was hit.) A member of the jury who blocked a guilty verdict for Dunn said the shooting was not about race, taking a lead from the prosecution team, which chose not to mention its racial dimensions. As with Zimmerman’s acquittal, the case has reopened a testy public conversation about race, often reluctantly engaged in, often marked by silence and denial. That conversation is largely concerned with debating individual racism. The ways in which bias are institutionalized in our systems, however, go unexplored.

There are certainly arguments, both formal and more anecdotal, for not focusing on race explicitly, particularly with regard to our legal system. A frequent pattern in these arguments has to do with what is known as a perception gap: People of color see racial dimensions of a given problem, while whites do not. The race raisers are accused of being obsessed, even racist themselves, while the race deniers are accused of being clueless.

John Roberts, chief justice of the United States, articulated the supposed benefits of color-blindness when he wrote in the majority opinion for a school desegregation case that the “way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” For Roberts, many considerations of race, even those designed to generate equity, are problematic. His colleague on the bench Clarence Thomas also suggested recently in a speech that people are overly “sensitive” and talk too much about race. With that kind of guidance, it’s no wonder so many Americans feel nothing but fatigue when the topic arises.

Race fatigue represents a complex array of feelings. White people often resist discussing race because they don’t see themselves as hostile to people of color and they fear accusations of racial bias. People of color also have race fatigue, often rooted in frustration. Facing skepticism or nonchalance about discrimination can gradually impel one to suppress public reflection about one’s experiences. During a workshop I gave last year on how to achieve racial equity, a middle-aged African-American man told me that he welcomed my focus on systems rather than on individuals. Previous workshops he attended required him to share his most painful experiences with bias, to no visible effect on the white people present. “I was really anxious about that,” he said. “I didn’t think I could do it again.”

We may wish that we were finished with the race project, but much remains to be done in education, housing, voting rights, criminal justice and employment. The way to make that progress is not by ignoring racial bias, endorsing a color-blind approach or focusing on people’s intentions. Instead, the path forward lies in understanding fully how such bias works in our public schools and prisons and at the ballot box — and how those systems enable or discourage discriminatory actions.

Redefining racial bias

Most Americans think of racism as a matter of individual, intentional and overt discrimination — such as telling black people that the apartment they want has a nonexistent waiting list or is no longer available when it is. Even those sensitive to subtle discrimination (for example, Oprah Winfrey being offered a less expensive handbag in a Swiss retail store) can sometimes cleave to the individual, intentional character of the problem. The focus therefore tends to be on whether someone is deliberately biased. We saw this play out during the Henry Louis Gates arrest incident (was the white cop racist?) and throughout the Martin case (was Zimmerman racist?).

Yet years of brain research tells us that much bias is actually unconscious — known as implicit bias — and perpetuated in hidden ways that are often enabled by seemingly race-neutral choices. A 2012 study used patient vignettes to examine the role of implicit bias among pediatricians. Those doctors with higher levels of pro-white bias were more likely to prescribe painkillers after surgery to white patients than to black. More holistically, a 2013 report from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity found that bias is institutionalized in our collective practices and policies, not just overtly perpetuated by individuals.

We must thus ask a much broader question than “Who is the racist?” Rather we could ask, what are the policies (which dictate action in our police departments and courthouses) that lead to the statistic that black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men?

“Stand your ground” laws are an example of how we institutionalize implicit bias. By removing the duty to retreat that exists in traditional self-defense law, they permit shooters who claim to be threatened by young black men to need little proof of actual threat because attorneys, judges and juries find it all too easy to believe — albeit unconsciously — that unarmed black men are nothing but dangerous.

To breathe life into the national race debate, we must deal with race fatigue the way we deal with other kinds of exhaustion. We rest, and then we keep the muscle moving so that it does not atrophy.

Because individuals, then, are often unaware of their biases, systems have to focus on the impact of their actions, not just on their stated intentions. Whether or not Dunn set out to kill an unarmed black man that night, he did just that. In the opinion of many close observers, the prosecution team’s choice to leave even the possibility of racial bias off the table contributed deeply to the mistrial. Two dozen racial justice leaders have signed an open letter to Florida State Attorney Angela Corey (the prosecutor for both the Zimmerman and the Dunn cases) and the rest of the legal community, which Race Forward, the organization I work for, produced. The letter states that “Jurors, in particular, need education and guidance to recognize the many ways in which racial bias works, just as they need to be educated about forensic reports or medical evidence.” Jury instructions are part of the structure of our criminal justice system, and the assumption that one cannot talk constructively to juries about racial bias has been proved untrue. U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett in northern Iowa, for one, takes the extra step of urging jurors (PDF) in his courtroom not to be swayed by their implicit biases.  

Taking action toward equity

Talking about race is often unsatisfying because it is just talk. Exposing, disrupting and enjoining our systems to pursue real solutions to discrimination in all its forms — this is the stuff that forces us to be better people, even if we don’t, on an individual basis, recognize any need for improvement.

Among the reasons that corporate managers say they have diversity fatigue (the corporate version of race fatigue) is that corporate diversity training is too often a one-day event with no follow-up. This means there is no way to measure progress and no institutional method for addressing issues of advancement, practices or policies. Without those elements, diversity training produces tokenism at best — I can come to the table, but once there I won’t be taken seriously. (In the corporate setting, high-level staffing and use of suppliers that are owned by people of color are two indicators that there is more than a token regard for fighting racial bias.)

In government, too, working toward equity requires more than an occasional intervention. The city of Seattle requires every department to run its policies and programs through a racial equity impact analysis. Similar to an environmental impact analysis assessing, say, the effects that erecting a new building might have on pollution or traffic, a racial impact analysis can predict and prevent actions that would increase racial inequity and can generate ideas for closing that gap. In Minneapolis, for example, the Board of Education has adopted the practice of conducting racial equity impact analyses systemwide. When it piloted this practice a few years ago, its analysis led it to save a community school serving a large number of Somali students that had been considered for closure, and to provide more school selection options to Native Americans in order to help keep families and communities unified.

Change through choice

At the root of race fatigue is the notion that because human beings are naturally biased, nothing — including racial hierarchies — can really change and the best we can do is mitigate some of the pain. But communities are making concrete progress addressing racial bias. Recent victories that will directly affect the lives of those trapped in our unjust incarceration system (and, in some cases, perhaps even decrease their numbers) include the Federal Communications Commission’s regulation of calls made from privately run prisons so they may not cost five times as much as regular pay-phone calls, the result of work by the Prison Phone Justice Campaign.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced reforms that undermine mandatory sentencing for drug convictions, after 15 years of organizing among victims of the drug war, through groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that New York City’s stop-and-frisk program is unconstitutional, finding that it amounted to “a policy of indirect racial profiling.” That ruling, the outcome of a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights, is under review, but Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced his intention to honor it. Last year the New York City Council passed the Community Safety Act to establish an independent commissioner to review law enforcement practices such as stop-and-frisk — the result of research and lobbying by Communities United for Police Reform.

Each of these changes addressed a specific form of inequity that kept producing disadvantages for people of color. Each such victory started small, with a group deciding that the status quo could be challenged.

To breathe life into the national race debate, we must deal with race fatigue the way we deal with other kinds of exhaustion. We rest, and then we keep the muscle moving so that it does not atrophy. The prizes for our willingness will include a stronger body politic, a more unified community and real improvements in people’s lives, including the actual preservation of those lives.  

Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of Race Forward and the publisher of Colorlines.com. The author of "The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization," she has been a leading voice in the racial justice movement for the past 20 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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