By Ed Cara
For those not U.S. centered, the shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent fallout has been one of the most polarizing stories of the year. For an extensive background of all the controversy surrounding the shooting, check out this link.
In Florida, a man with a documented history of violence and obsessive behavior can shoot an unarmed 17 year old teenager, be given the benefit of the doubt and sent home a day later without charges or follow-up because his last name was Zimmerman and the boy’s first name was Trayvon.
In Kansas, House Representatives can try to pass a bill legalizing the discrimination of gay men and women under the auspices of religious freedom; and halfway across the world, a young girl can be forced to marry a older man by her family, try to return home because he turned out to be incredibly abusive and subsequently be left to drown in a river by her father for having dishonored tradition.
That’s essentially what it comes down to in the end: Tradition. The way things are. Our rituals, habits and traditions, passed down generation to generation, strengthen our ties to family, friends and offer a sense of purpose to what can feel like a lonely existence at times, but they can also blind us. Cognitively, they’re an extension of what our brain needs to do to keep from overheating due to all the info we take in on a daily basis; take shortcuts.
It’s a curious tango between tradition and intuition that our brains dance along to underneath our open eyes, because while we might take for granted that instincts, or gut feelings, are born not made, that’s not often the case. You don’t have to look any further than language to see that.
Anyone who’s spent enough time on the twitterbook has probably seen this image:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.*
A incomprehensible sentence by any measure yet a good number of us can understand it perfectly. The basics of English have been so pounded into our heads since we were young, that even when faced with incomplete/fuzzy information, we unconsciously fill in the blanks to generate the most likely picture. In a snapshot, that’s what all those shortcuts come to: making an educated guess based on the constant info we’re fed. The brain does it so well that we’re ever even barely conscious of it and we can’t help but come out feeling right about those shortcuts we take. It needs to feel right because we wouldn’t be relying on them otherwise. Trouble is, they aren’t always.
These heuristics, as they’re come to be known in the sciences, are to this day studied by psychologists, but before we get too carried away with all that technical stuff, let’s focus on that particularly popular story of the last few weeks; the shooting of Trayvon Martin in a small gated community in by George Zimmerman, and what it’s shown us about intuition, tradition and shortcuts.
Now let’s leave aside the critical minutes in-between those 911 calls made by neighbors reporting sounds of a struggle, screaming and one fatal gunshot, and focus on the before and after; not only because it’s mostly irreverent here but because the questions about those minutes should ultimately be asked by the criminal justice system.
By his own words, Zimmerman was someone who saw the young Trayvon as ‘suspicious’, an ‘asshole’ looking to “get away with it” when he first sent in that pivotal call to the police that rainy February 26th. Despite being instructed to back off and meet officers at the local community center, Zimmerman continued to trail Martin, who he suspected of holding something in his hand (likely the bag of skittles he had just bought from the convenience store). Of course what exactly happened next we might never know, but it begs the question, why did the self-appointed neighborhood-watch leader call 911 in the first place? Why was Travyon suspicious to the half-hispanic (apparently to some, that fact alone preempts any accusation of racism) George Zimmerman? Was it because he was black? Was it because he was wearing a hoodie, as noted commentator and part-time 60′s porn star Geraldo Rivera suspects? Was it the furiously frothing at the mouth racism of Zimmerman that led him to brutally and sadistically murder a young black boy? Maybe, maybe and probably not.
A lifetime of experiences, stimuli, tellings and retellings unconsciously shaped who Zimmerman saw wrapped up in that hoodie. Dangerous, up to no good, threatening, criminal, parasitic…different. Those are likely some of the thoughts and feelings that ran hidden through Zimmerman as he continued to chase after an unarmed teen in the night. Trayvon’s clothing, mannerisms, and yes, color created a specific but fuzzy picture of danger, and however far from the truth it might have been, it was an impression Zimmerman carried with him as he loaded his licensed handgun in case the suspected burglar was carrying his own weapon, as a possible gesture to fuck off and get lost by Martin turned into a display of aggression, or finally as a grab for Zimmerman’s leg while they struggled turned into an attempt to grab his holstered gun and shoot him with it (obviously all conjectures here).
Zimmerman’s biases, his intuitions, led him to a conclusion about the 17-year-old Trayvon, and however things escalated, each subsequent action jumped on top of that conclusion, sparking a runaway chain of events that led to the untimely death of a teen. Zimmerman didn’t need to explicitly despise the color of Martin’s skin to jump to conclusions about who he saw that night either. Nor does any of this excuse the zealous actions of a neighborhood watchman. It only gives it the proper context.
The same thing goes for the Sanford police department that’s been lambasted over the last few weeks for their handling of the shooting. Lest we forget; before all this publicity came raining down on the town of fourty thousand, police were ready to declare the incident a clear cut case of self-defense, just as Zimmerman described to them, though at least one detective didn’t take him at his word. As time’s gone along, the police and Florida prosecutors have found themselves on the defensive as to why they let Zimmerman wholly off the hook when serious questions reminded as to his version of events, Why they didn’t bother checking up on the contradictory eye-witness accounts of the night provided by neighbors or that of Martin’s girlfriend, who alleges an entirely different recollection of the night as she and Martin spoke on the phone immediately before their confrontation. Why not bother? Did they need to be blatant racists who saw a dead black boy and assumed he deserved it to ignore the elephant in the room? No.
Collectively, they simply needed to look at George Zimmerman, half-hispanic that he may be, and give his story more credit than it was due, not give it as critical a look that it deserved. If Zimmerman told them that he believed he was defending his neighborhood against a criminal and Trayvon fit the bill enough, then why should he be arrested for what he did? Sure, Trayvon Martin was unarmed and innocent of any crime, but it’s understandable why someone could mistake him for a troublemaker accidentally. Just look at him.
Zimmerman’s account needs no scrutiny if you already look at the world as one where black youths are merely more suspicious by default. Not out of hatred (necessarily), but because that’s just how the world is. That’s how things are. That doesn’t mean there can’t be obtusely clear patterns of racial prejudice in the Sanford Police Department, George Zimmerman, or any of his defenders. Only that our biases need not be oozing out of every pore to be omnipresent in the thoughts we hold and the actions we take.
The most important takeaway here is that racism, sexism, or whatever other ism you wanna throw in there doesn’t exclusively come in KKK flavor and we need to stop treating it as such. Prejudice is not short for hatred, though it can manifest as such. They’re our intuitions gone awry.
Our biases carry us further than we’d expect, our hatreds run deeper, and our demons to darker and subtler depths than we’d care to admit. When those darker impulses run amok in others, it’s only natural to distance ourselves from it. There are plenty of those who look to paint George Zimmerman as a remorseless monster, a despicable gun-toting racist, but that only serves to ease our own tensions. Because that means we’re not as bad as he is. Others run away from any accusation of racism because in the U.S. black on black crime is higher than white on black crime, or because George Zimmerman was a self-described Democrat, or because it doesn’t manifest in front of us every time out with a giant sign labeled “HEY IT’S ME, RACISM. ‘SUP?
We run away from the uncomfortable, even when it’s the only chance to better ourselves, for the sake of staying safe, for the sake of tradition, but our isms permeate every aspect of our society, whether we like it or not. What the Zimmerman case ultimately needs to teach us is that we all suffer for ignoring that fact.
That’s perhaps the biggest positive out of all this; that a clamor was raised over the hesitance to formally charge Zimmerman, that awkward questions have been asked, and that the deep-seated and backwards ideals and thoughts of a good number of Americans have been brought out into the light. Just because many of our intuitions are made subconsciously, doesn’t mean that they can’t be made better consciously.
As of last week, George Zimmerman has formally been arraigned and charged by Florida prosecutors of the 2nd degree murder of Trayvon Martin.
*The actual story behind that popular parlor trick is of course more nuanced. Turns out the longer and more complicated the words, the harder it becomes to read it right. In other words, you can’t just read any jumbled word if its first and last letters are left alone. And there is no English university. Another unperfect shortcut.