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Shooting to Kill

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By Nathan Mathabane

The recent shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has sparked a firestorm in the national media, generating intense discussion around everything from gun ownership to race relations. A wave of protests has been sweeping the country, demanding the arrest of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin in the chest on his way home from a convenience store. Though the circumstances surrounding the February shooting are vague, a recent tape of the 911 call suggests that the killing was less out of "self-defense" than Zimmerman had previously claimed. Apparently -- in the opinion of some -- a young black man in a hoodie walking through a predominately white neighborhood constitutes enough of a threat to warrant lethal action. The role of race in situations like the Florida shooting must not go unnoticed.

As a person of color and a native of Portland, Ore., this isn't the first time that I've thought about racially motivated shootings. From when I moved to Portland in 2000 to when I began at Princeton in the fall of 2009, Portland has seen four fatal police shootings classified as "unprovoked." Among these are the notable cases of Keaton Otis and Aaron Campbell. All four of the victims of these killings were black. These shootings envelope a set of contentious issues ranging from "Stand Your Ground" self-defense laws to gun rights -- topics which other writers can speak to more effectively than I. In this column, I am mostly concerned with racial prejudice and the role it should and shouldn't have on people's actions.

It's no secret that most people harbor racial preferences and prejudices; research psychologists have proved as much through their ongoing Implicit Association Test. Too often we ignore the role of race in our judgments. We think that by admitting that race plays any role in our choices we are being racist. Quite the contrary; it is only by being fully aware of race and racial perceptions that we can mitigate the negative consequences of prejudice.

Despite our careful upbringings and Ivy League educations, the fact remains that nearly all of us are at least a little racist. I don't mean that we all harbor a sense of racial superiority; I mean that race contributes to our perceptions of others. I've seen enough students change their walking pace or cross the street when confronted with people who make them "uncomfortable." A myriad of factors go into triggering this defensiveness. It could be anything from the neighborhood to the way the strangers carry themselves to the color of the stranger's skin. Race is one of many criteria we use when making judgments about other people.

The world can be a dangerous and hostile place for the unrealistically optimistic. If you think that we live in some kind of a post-racial society where everyone means well and doesn't think of you as a young black man in a completely white neighborhood or a little white girl strolling through the South Bronx, you're only endangering yourself. Making the wisest decision given the limited information with which one is presented is vital to one's safety.

The fatal error that killed Trayvon, Keaton and Aaron arises when one of the pieces of the puzzle -- race -- outweighs the other aspects of our judgment call. Rather than forming one of many bases of judgment, race has a tendency to become the governing basis of judgment, permeating and twisting other pieces of evidence; what seems like a white man reaching for his cell phone could seem like a black man reaching for his gun. When people allow race to dominate their perceptions of others is when the death of people like Trayvon becomes possible.

Obviously we can't just change the way other people make us feel subconsciously; it's been wired into us by a string of life experiences and role modeling. To try to ignore race and hope for a brighter future in which race doesn't play any role in our thoughts is utter nonsense. Disregarding the importance of race is tantamount to disregarding the important of emotions. We cannot change -- at least not with great speed or conviction -- our visceral response to race. What you can change is how those feelings manifest themselves in your actions. The next time race slips its way into your judgment, take a step back and wonder how much of your prejudice is warranted. You'll be surprised -- and I hope pleasantly surprised -- by just how often you're mistaken.

Fortunately for us Princetonians, most of us will never be placed in a position where our racial prejudices concern life-or-death decisions. This doesn't free us from our responsibility to think about the role that race plays in our own lives and judgments. It's not good enough to just brush race under the table and pretend that we live in a perfectly diverse and understanding bubble. Trayvon's death reminds us that the battle for racial harmony is far from over.

Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at nmathaba@princeton.edu.

This post originally appeared in The Daily Princetonian.