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Racism and the Trayvon Martin Shooting

April 12, 2012

travyon-martin-researchRSF grantee Sam Sommers has posted a provocative essay on Huffington Post about the Trayvon Martin shooting. While he notes the behavioral science research on the link between race and weapons bias, Sommers argues that the national dialogue about the tragic incident should move beyond determining if George Zimmerman, Martin's shooter, is racist:

[How] can we ever expect the "Is s/he a racist?" question to lead to any sort of consensus? A few years ago I and a colleague published a series of studies [partially funded by the Russell Sage Foundation] looking at how people define "racist." The answer? We set the bar just past where we ourselves are. So what makes someone a racist? You may not know, but you do know it's not you.

Instead of arguing over who's a racist, let's shift the conversation to more important questions. Let's debate instead the underlying tensions and tendencies that contributed to Trayvon Martin's shocking death. About the implications of living in a society in which white parents rarely talk to their kids about race, but black parents have to warn their sons to bend over backwards to avoid so much as the whiff of suspicion at the convenience store or routine traffic stop. About what it means when our laws (and our culture) shift from duty to retreat to stand your ground.

Trayvon Martin and the Decision to Shoot

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
April 4, 2012

trayvon-martin-researchThe Trayvon Martin shooting has called into question Florida's 'stand your ground' law, which allows a person to claim self-defense even if a plausible opportunity to escape harm exists. In a recent interview, former President Bill Clinton called for a review of the statute, saying that it could mean "anyone...can basically be a part of a neighborhood watch when they have a concealed weapon whether they had proper law enforcement training or not. And whether they've had any experience in conflict situations with people or not." Since research has shown that racial stereotypes play a significant role in our perception of who carries weapons (see our previous post), Clinton's argument raises a difficult question: what difference does "law enforcement training" make? Are civilians more likely than trained police officers to make errors in "shoot/don't shoot" scenarios, and will they show higher levels of racial bias in these errors? Conversely, can training and practice reduce the probability of mistaking, say, a bag of Skittles on a black teenager for a weapon?

Trayvon Martin and The Science of Race and Violence

April 3, 2012

travyon-martin-researchPhillip A. Goff, one of the leaders of the Foundation's Racial Bias in Policing project, co-wrote an essay for the Huffington Post on the Trayvon Martin incident and how it tragically illuminates the ways we use "race as a proxy for suspicion":

This results from what we refer to as the "cascade of suspicion," the waves of psychological errors that can warp the perceptions of otherwise reasonable individuals. For instance, in a series of psychological studies, Jennifer Eberhardt, colleagues and I found that merely thinking about crime causes individuals to attend to Black male faces and ignore White ones -- a kind of subconscious racial profiling. Similarly, race can also literally shape what we see when looking at Black men, with research by other researchers demonstrating that both civilians and law enforcement are more likely to "see" weapons in the hands of unarmed Black men than unarmed White men.

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