One month ago, Trayvon Martin, a black, 17-year-old boy, walked back from a 7-Eleven snack run with a bag of Skittles and some iced tea. He never made it home. George Zimmerman, a local neighbor watchman, deemed Martin “suspicious,” followed the teen and, after a still ambiguous altercation, fatally shot Martin.
Police came, the incident was deemed self-defense and Zimmerman walked away.
National outrage ensued. Protests have spread from Florida to Washington and California. Newspapers fill with questions about gun rights and racial profiling. Youth wearing hoodies file into church pews, recalling Martin’s last attire.
Much is still unknown about the case, but we do know that it’s struck a cord in our national heart. How did this happen? How much is the result of racial bias? How have we become so suspicious?
In many ways, this case highlights the larger issue of our own personal biases: how we judge others based on appearance and how those judgements influence our reactions — often producing fear and mistrust.
On Sunday, the Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board offered this insight:
“When people in a community fear each other, it is far better to build up community ties than to add more fear by increasing the police presence, forming more neighbohood-watch patrols or loosening gun laws.
“To use fear as an official deterrence to crime can only go so far to safeguard a broken community. In fact, it might even backfire by turning residents against police. Or, as may be the case with Mr. Zimmerman, the recent creation of his watch group and the addition of police patrols in his neighborhood may have contributed to his level of fear toward strangers, not lessened it.”
Most of us are wary of strangers; our mothers taught us “stranger danger.” To a certain extent, our awareness of difference is necessary; difference helps us organize and categorize the world. However, that same categorization can easily create an “us versus them” mentality.
One of the most dangerous aspects of such a mentality is the fact that most of these judgements are automatic and often unconscious.
In his book “Blink,” author Malcolm Gladwell writes, “When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, ‘Blink’ is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.”
In the book, Gladwell referenced the Implicit Association Test that allows participants to test their own biases from race to religion. The site warns interested applicants that the test may result in “interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree.”
A few of us at The Daily Universe decided to take the challenge. Our results: we had a “moderate automatic preference” for white people, the young compared to the elderly, and view some religions more favorably than others.
Even as students striving to remove our biased natures we found, deep inside, we still have them.
In reality most of us do.
This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does give us something to work on.
It isn’t until we recognize unconscious biases that we can begin to consciously change them. We can begin to recognize when these instincts kick in and correct course. We can ask ourselves why and rationally sort through the answer when we stereotype based on race, age or — maybe closer to home — mustache touting men, hipsters, legging wearers or “Molly Mormons” and “Peter Priesthoods.”
Maybe then we can move forward and forge those bonds that unite rather than create the categories that divide.
This viewpoint represents the opinion of The Daily Universe editorial board and does not necessarily represent the opinions of BYU, its administration or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.