It should be especially unsurprising that Zimmerman would have internalized racially-biased assumptions about black males, given the society in which he (and we) reside. And although this hardly lets him off the hook — one must be responsible for one’s own actions in any event, no matter the social contributors to those actions — it is worth noting a few things about the milieu in which this wannabe police officer was operating. In other words, Zimmerman’s culpability, while total and complete, is not solitary.
After all, we are a society in which research has shown quite conclusively that local newscasts overrepresent blacks as criminals, relative to their actual share of total crime, and overrepresent whites as victims, relative to our share of victimization.
A society in which other studies have shown that these racially-skewed newscasts have a direct relationship to widespread negative perceptions of black people. Indeed, a substantial percentage of anti-black racial hostility can be directly traced to media imagery, even after all other factors are considered.
A society in which the disproportionate incarceration of black males — especially for non-violent drug offenses, which they are no more likely (and often even less likely) than whites to commit — feeds the perception that they are so treated because they are dangerous and must be kept at bay.
A society in which criminality is so associated with blackness that whites literally and almost instantly connect the two things in survey after survey, and study after study, even though we are roughly 5 times as likely to be criminally victimized by another white person as by a black person.
A society in which anti-black racism has been so long ingrained that not only most whites, but also most Latinos and Asian Americans, demonstrate substantial subconscious bias against African Americans in study after study of implicit racial hostility (and even about a third of blacks themselves demonstrate anti-black racism).
George Zimmerman was very simply taught to fear black men by his society, and he learned his lessons well. And while he must be punished for his transgressions — and hopefully will be, now that the Justice Department is investigating and a Grand Jury is being convened — let there be no mistake, he cannot and should not take the fall alone for that which stems so directly from a larger social and cultural narrative to which he (and all of us) have been subjected.
Black males are, for far too many in America, a racial Rorschach test, onto which we instantaneously graft our own perceptions and assumptions, virtually none of them good. Look, a black man on your street! Quick, what do you see? A criminal. Look, a black man on the corner! Quick, what do you see? A drug dealer. Look, a black man in a suit, in a corporate office! Quick, what do you see? An affirmative action case who probably got the job over a more qualified white man. And if you don’t believe that this is what we do — what you do — then ask yourself why 95 percent of whites, when asked to envision a drug user, admit to picturing a black person, even though blacks are only 13 percent of users, compared to about 70 percent who are white? Ask yourself why whites who are hooked up to brain scan monitors and then shown subliminal images of black men — too quickly for the conscious mind to even process what it saw — show a dramatic surge of activity in that part of the brain that reacts to fear and anxiety? Ask yourself why whites continue to believe that we are the most discriminated against group in America — and that folks of color are “taking our jobs” — even as we remain roughly half as likely to be out of work and a third as likely to be poor as those persons of color. Even when only comparing persons with college degrees, black unemployment is about double the white rate, Latino unemployment about 50 percent higher, and Asian American unemployment about a third higher than their white counterparts.
George Zimmerman must be held accountable for his actions, and hopefully he will be. Innocent until proven guilty of course, there is a process for determining matters of formal legal responsibility, and may that process now move forward to a just conclusion. But beyond the matter of legal guilt or innocence, beyond that which can be addressed in a court of law — one way or the other — there is a bigger issue here, and it is one that cannot be resolved by a jury, be it Grand or otherwise, nor by judges or prosecutors. It is the none-too-minor matter of the monster we as a nation have created, not only apparently in the heart of George Zimmerman, but in the minds of millions: individuals far too quick to rationalize any injustice so long as the victim has a black face; persons for whom no act of racially-biased misconduct qualifies as racist; persons who have allowed their own fears, anxieties and occasionally even hatreds to numb them, to inure them to the pain and suffering of the so-called other.
3 months ago