Trayvon Martin and implicit bias

by Eva Paterson

As we continue to struggle with the verdict in this murder case – as the only juror of color states that George Zimmerman “got away with murder” and as the nation lurches through yet another tragic episode that forces us to deal with our racial legacy – new ways of viewing race are surfacing.

Mt.+Zion+High+School+students+‘I+am+Trayvon’+mass+march+Atlanta+032612+by+Aspen+Evans+web, Trayvon Martin and implicit bias, News & Views Commentators suggest that the Department of Justice will have a difficult time prosecuting George Zimmerman because it will be nearly impossible to show that the shooting was motivated by racial animus in an intentional manner.

As I listen to these discouraging words, I think of psychological concepts articulated by Charles Lawrence, a legal scholar whom I greatly admire.

Several decades ago in his ground breaking article, “The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism,” Lawrence asserted that much of racial bias operates out of our conscious mind/brain. Mankind is hard wired to make split-second decisions based on limited information.

Early man and woman when seeing a form coming towards them from afar had to think: “Is that Uncle Leo or a saber toothed tiger?” Making the correct decision was a matter of life and death.

I have read that the brain processes 400 billion bits of information a second, but we are only aware of 2,000 of those. We do not have time to sort through and analyze all this information, so our brain and mind takes shortcuts.


Stereotypes are a way for the brain to take shortcuts. If the object coming towards pre-historic man or woman was only a couple of feet high, it was more than likely a tiger and not Uncle Leo. The fact that the object coming might be a short person or a child gets factored out because of the pressure of having to make a quick decision.

In the Trayvon Martin murder trial, the defense consciously or unconsciously used stereotypes about young Black men to great advantage. The infamous Juror B-37 said that Zimmerman was not racially profiling young Trayvon but was merely profiling him based on the fact that Black men had been involved with burglaries in that neighborhood.

One way to activate stereotypes in the brain is through “priming.” I am an attorney and not a psychologist, but my understanding of priming is that you evoke certain images that trigger a cascade of associations.

By showing Trayvon bare chested, the defense primed the jurors to think of him as a dangerous Black man. Social science research indicates that many white Americans associate Black faces with criminality and aggression.

Many Black men, including the president of the United States and Questlove, have come forward with heartbreaking stories of how they are viewed as threatening by their mere presence. Talk with any Black man in this country and he will have a story that tracks this perspective.

Devastating social science research

Social scientists have been studying these issues for decades. Unconscious bias. Implicit bias. We are learning that we all have biases about many things.

These views are often outside of our conscious minds. There is an important study called “Are Jamal and Lakeisha as Employable as Brandon and Emily.” The authors of the study took identical resumes and put Black sounding names at the top of one set of resumes and white sounding names at the top of the second set.

The resumes with white sounding names got more call backs and offers of employment. When the qualifications of the applicants with Black sounding names were more stellar than the qualifications of the applicants with white sounding names, the whites still fared better.

Social scientists have been studying these issues for decades. Unconscious bias. Implicit bias. We are learning that we all have biases about many things.

Yet, if you asked the decision-makers if they harbored racial prejudice, they would assert – and believe in their hearts of hearts – that they were colorblind. They would tell you about their Black friends. They would accuse you of being overly sensitive. They would assert that we have a Black president and that we are in post-racial America. They would tell you that they are tired of talking about race and that if you pesky Black folks would just stop harping on perceived injustice, the problem would go away.

I heard that a poll taken this week indicates that white folks by 54 percent feel that race relations are just fine. Only 19 percent of Black folks agreed! This is more evidence that we live in at least two radically different realities.

George Zimmerman and implicit bias

There is an amazing video that my new friend, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett (Northern District of Iowa), shared with a number of us who attended a mind science conference at Northwestern University’s Law School this past April.

The premise is as follows. There is a bicycle chained to a fence. Three different individuals openly and quite brazenly use bolt cutters to try to cut the chain and take the bike. These three individuals assert that the bike is not theirs, but they want it.

The first scenario involves a young white man. He is asked questions about what he is doing by passersby. He boldly states that the bike is not his but that he wants it. Many people stop by.

The second scenario involves a Black man. Within moments, passersby are calling the police, are taking his picture with their smart phones and are generally quite vocal in expressing their dismay at this criminal behavior.

The last bicycle thief is an attractive white woman. Not only are there no calls to the police, but some men actually stop to help her “liberate” the bike, much to the chagrin of their girlfriends. This experiment speaks to how our internalized views of Black folks as opposed to how we see white folks color our reactions.

This reality was at play that dreadful night when George Zimmerman murdered young Trayvon Benjamin Martin, as his dear mother calls him. “Those f—king punks get away with it all the time.” His stereotypes about young Black men were triggered.

The jurors were primed to agree with this. The fear that many white people have about Black men was triggered and given credence. The judge handcuffed the prosecution by not allowing obvious racial profiling to be part of the analysis of the case.

The prosecution was more accustomed to dealing with Black defendants and was not equipped to adequately prosecute the case. Their handling of the testimony of the teenager Rachel Jeantel evidenced unfamiliarity with Black folks and how we sometime communicate.

Can the Department of Justice make it right?

To come full circle, I wonder if the Department of Justice can introduce notions of implicit bias to explain why George Zimmerman’s actions were motivated by negative views of Black people.

This is obviously a new area of law, but it tracks how racism plays out in the 21st century. One commentator described the current state of affairs as “racism without racists.” No one thinks they have any racial animus anymore. This is a good thing. We are at the place in our development as people where most people think that racism is a bad thing. The sad reality is that structural racism and racial bias still exist.

I wonder if the Department of Justice can introduce notions of implicit bias to explain why George Zimmerman’s actions were motivated by negative views of Black people.

I do not have expertise in how to plead and prove a case against Mr. Zimmerman using implicit bias concepts, but I feel it would be helpful for the body politic to have to face how racism manifests itself today.

Tony West, our good Bay Area brother, was confirmed yesterday as associate attorney general. I will be in touch with him about this approach.

Debiasing: a ray of hope

My organization, the Equal Justice Society, has been fortunate enough to be part of two very important gatherings focusing on mind science – one at Harvard Law and the other at Northwestern Law.

Eva-Jefferson-Paterson-web, Trayvon Martin and implicit bias, News & Views We learned that social scientists, including Dr. Trish Devine at the University of Wisconsin and Dr. Nilanga Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, are working on ways for us to rewire our brains so that we do not make decisions based on stereotypes and implicit bias.

My friends, the therapist Mara Romanak and her husband Paul, gave me “The Brain That Changes Itself,” a book by Dr. Norman Doidge. The book talks of the neuroplasticity of the brain and gives examples of how people’s brains and minds have been rewired and have overcome physical problems. If the brain is this agile in the physical realm, I am confident that we can rewire our brains and minds to view all people in more objective ways that involve less unacknowledged bias.

Ever the optimist, I feel we can heal ourselves of this racial sickness.


Eva Paterson is president and co-founder of the Equal Justice Society. Now in its 13th year, the Equal Justice Society is a national legal organization focused on restoring constitutional safeguards against discrimination. Our goal is to help achieve a society where race is no longer a barrier to opportunity. Specifically, EJS is working to fully restore the constitutional protections of the 14th Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause by replacing the Intent Doctrine with a Disparate Impact standard that addresses contemporary forms of racism. Learn more at