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Kim Siegal Headshot

We Are Juror B37

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Trayvon Martin. What else is there to say? The case has been examined, re-examined. The legal experts say our emotional reaction, our indignant outrage, belies a sophisticated understanding of things like the "rules of evidence," "burden of proof" and "reasonable doubt." We cry back: we don't want to understand the legal jargon of a system that sees a man, who no one doubts shot an unarmed boy, held wholly unaccountable for his actions.

Still, we've scrutinized the case. We've analyzed the reaction. And the reaction to the reaction. But are we really examining ourselves? Have we turned the media's relentless self-examination inward, where it could do some good?

Maybe that self-reflection is too hard. In some ways, when Obama was declared President we all got to exhale a bit. The tears people shed in Chicago, when millions flocked to Grant Park to celebrate the unthinkable, a black president not 60 years after Emmett Till was killed for daring to speak casually to white woman, were sincere. But in a lot of ways it gave Americans permission to stop that uncomfortable self-examination necessary in a country with persistent racial disparities in education, financial rewards and, probably most glaringly, the criminal justice system. We didn't have to accept blame any more. The dormant, if wrong-headed, implication was that we are not complicit in these inequities, and the fault now lies not with society but the individuals who fail to overcome "old" barriers.

But every year new research confirms what we all subconsciously know, that Americans still harbor unexamined and often unconscious prejudices. These biases are subtle and insipid. The Implicit Association Test, a clever psychological test popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, shows that subjects (black and white) are generally faster to associate positive words with names of white people rather than black people. Another famous study shows that employers are less likely to call back equally qualified candidates resumes with "blacker" names.

It probably doesn't take peer-reviewed research to do this simple thought experiment: If an armed 20-something black man, suspected and then followed a white teenager, fought with him and then killed him, how many years in jail would he serve? Now, just for kicks, imagine it was an affluent white teenager. It's difficult to impossible to imagine an acquittal. But scrap the hypotheticals. Research shows that jurors are over 300% more likely to acquit a white defendant than black defendant who pleads self-defense in a "stand your ground" state. Other research shows that all white juries are significantly more likely to convict black defendants. But if there's just one - just one - black juror introduced, those differences disappear.

Point is, it's a fantasy to say that justice is blind or that people don't harbor latent or even subconscious prejudices. The justice system is built on a scaffolding of laws, but the bricks, mortar... hell, the window dressing - it's all made of fallible humans. So, if we don't start airing, examining and addressing our own prejudices, we're never going to move forward towards a just and equitable country.

Maybe that's a pipe dream anyway, and even as I argue for it, I don't have any recipe for addressing subconscious biases. But the truth is that simply changing a bunch of wacky, anachronistic, vigilante-promoting state laws, is not going to get us all the way there. Maybe instead of saying "We Are Trayvon" we should start thinking how we all just might be a little bit "Juror B37" and then start talking about it and at some point figure out what the hell to do about it.