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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Did Bias Kill Trayvon Martin?

Growing up in the suburbs of Maryland, I lived a life of relative security among a community of people who were brown like me. My neighborhood was African American, and the Catholic school I attended, which was run by black nuns, had a student body comprised of only black children. And while we ventured into Washington, DC frequently to visit family and friends, and for Mom's visit to her hairdresser, we seemed always to be in a part of town inhabited only by other black people. For a time, the only white faces I saw were at the grocery store or on television, or on those occasions when we'd visit Mom's job or the museums on the National Mall.

And then it all changed.

It was a family trip down to Birmingham, Alabama to attend my Godfather's wedding. Dozens of my extended family made the trip down south and we took a block of rooms at a hotel downtown. It was an adventure, but on one afternoon, that adventure turned into something ominous when the hotel manager called with some disturbing news - the KKK were having a rally in downtown Birmingham, not too far from our hotel, and the manager thought that for our own good we might just want to stay indoors. Mom quickly gathered all of the adult family members and for the first time in my life I saw fear in Mom's eyes, and something else that I couldn't name at that time, but that I can now some 35 years later - anger. Mom was angry that after all she had done to shield her little girls from racism, here it was, breaking in, in the guise of faceless, hooded men in white sheets. After all that she had done to protect my sister and I, here we were, forced to sit in a hotel room and pray that the terror would pass.

It's a natural instinct to try to protect your children from hurt and harm and danger. But what about those threats of a more insidious nature? What about the threat of bias?

Bias is one of those words that's been given a black eye. In the 1990's, gender bias was a cause celeb, with women rallying to stamp it out in the workplace and on college campuses. Gender bias owed a lot to its immediate predecessor, media bias, which had been the subject of countless journalism school courses and public opinion polls in the 1980's. By the time we made it to the 2000's, though, bias was starting to lose its edge. It was being reduced to a fad, a relic of the politically-correct that was being used to attack free speech and subvert the so-called natural order of things. Bias lawsuits are notoriously difficult to pursue if you're the plaintiff because of the legal standards one must meet to prove their case, including direct evidence of discrimination, such as letters, memos, and notes showing a pattern of bias. Without them, bias cases turn into my word against yours.

Bias is defined as "A particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question; prejudice."
A particular tendency or inclination?

It sounds harmless, almost, but it's not. While DISCRIMINATION is a hard word of intentional action with very clear cut legal ramifications, bias seems its vague relative. A particular tendency. But with the murder of Trayvon Martin, there should be no doubt of the awful power of bias. If discrimination is the engine, then bias is the fuel. All week,  as varying accounts of George Zimmerman have started to emerge- law enforcement wannabe, trusted neighbor, racist vigilante - I've been most curious about two particular facts that have been trotted out by friends of Zimmerman: that Zimmerman is Hispanic and that he has black relatives. Neither of these facts negates bias. I've had white friends who wouldn't think of dating someone black. The fact of our friendship doesn't absolve them of bias. I have black male relatives who think that women shouldn't earn as much as men. The fact of their blackness doesn't absolve them of bias.

A fascinating study is currently being conducted called Project Implicit. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard, along with Dr. Brian Nosek and Dr. Tony Greenwald devised the project in order to uncover the implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unable or unwilling to admit. Through a series of online questions called Implicit Association Tests (IATs), you can see patterns of implicit bias in your own thoughts and attitudes. It makes you wonder if that song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from the musical, "Avenue Q", is true and if we have something more to fear than some hatemongering men in white hoods and white sheets. 

So did bias kill Trayvon Martin? Was it bias that made Zimmerman suspect that a young black boy was up to no good? Was it bias that made Zimmerman reach for his gun? If it had been a 14-year old hoodie-wearing white girl lost and looking for her house that night would we be talking about this? 

I'm just saying. 

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