Jordan Davis, 17, once wore a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin. Months later, Jordan himself was gunned down. Like Trayvon, Jordan lost his life to a shooter who claimed deathly fear of him, though Jordan never even got out of his car.
Michael Dunn, Jordan’s killer, claims self-defense at his murder trial, currently underway. He met Jordan and Jordan’s three young African American male friends outside a Jacksonville, Florida convenience store. Dunn disliked the boys’ “thug music” and asked them to turn it down. A verbal altercation about the music ensued. Dunn claims Jordan threatened to kill him and pointed a shotgun at him. The other witnesses say that Jordan argued with Dunn about the music, but never threatened him. No firearm or weapon was found.
What’s clear is that Dunn took his pistol out of his glove compartment and out of its holster, and fired ten shots at the teens’ SUV. One shot entered Jordan’s abdomen, severed his aorta, and killed him.
The trial presents the jury with two options:
— Option 1. Michael Dunn is truthful when he says Jordan pointed a gun at him, and thus his self-defense claim is valid and he must be acquitted.
— Option 2. Michael Dunn is lying about the gun. Therefore he is guilty of murder.
What seems to be beyond the limits of what our criminal justice system can handle is a very real third possibility: that Michael Dunn genuinely “saw” a gun in Jordan’s hand, though none existed.
Decades of research into implicit racial biases have demonstrated that many people, especially whites, see nonexistent weapons in the hands of black males. Social psychologists at the University of Colorado asked subjects to watch a video and then make a split-second decision to shoot when they perceived that the character who flashed on screen threatened them. In experiment after experiment—subjects were undergraduates, DMV customers, mall food-court patrons, and police officers—mistakes followed a pattern: they shot more unarmed blacks than unarmed whites, and they failed to shoot more whites than blacks who were holding weapons. Recounting the results of four separate studies, researchers wrote, “In the case of African-American targets, participants simply set a lower threshold for the decision to shoot.” That trend held true even when the participants themselves were African-American.
These disturbing findings support a growing body of research confirming that study participants are more likely to misidentify a nonthreatening object (like a cell phone or wallet) as a weapon when a black face precedes it, or that ambiguous behavior is far more likely to be perceived as violent when a black person is engaging in it.
Most of us think that one is either racist or one is not, and certainly that we are not. An accusation of racism is a serious charge and is often hotly denied. And yet the field of testing for implicit racial biases opens up another possibility: that while we would like to think of ourselves as open-minded and egalitarian, most of us have subliminally absorbed longstanding and widespread cultural messages that affect our decision-making processes when it comes to sizing up African Americans.
And so racial bias festers, perniciously, under the smooth surface where no one admits to prejudice at all. Three-quarters of blacks say they have personally experienced race discrimination. And evidence of extensive differential treatment confirms that our unacknowledged stereotypes continue to mar the lives of African Americans, especially in our criminal justice system – the one place where everyone should have an equal chance at justice.
The real solution lies in talking about America’s sore spot – race – and owning up to our deep seated racial biases, especially when it comes to revealing who we fear. George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn surely harbored these biases, but you and I probably do as well. It’s easy to demonize these men, but much harder to acknowledge our own implicit biases that may be uncomfortably similar. But we can’t overcome them until we do.
We all should be sick of case after case of shootings of unarmed young black Americans. Since Trayvon Martin, not only Jordan Davis but Darius Simmons, Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride all lost their lives due to suspicions, fears and outrageously wrong assumptions apparently based on the color of their skin. We do them a disservice when we duck the real issue and pretend that race had nothing to do with it. And we can’t advance toward equality without acknowledging and eliminating the scourge of racial bias that continues to cause the deaths of American kids.