03/26/2012 10:53 am ET Updated May 26, 2012

An Open Letter to Geraldo Rivera

As a legal academic, active scholar, and father that writes on issues relating to social justice, focusing particularly on the Latino and Latina community, I am always cautious about condemning another person of color out of concern over promoting factionalism. I was nevertheless compelled to write this open letter after your recent comments on the Fox & Friends program.

While you have since tried to distance yourself from those words -- because, as you stated, your son said he was ashamed of you -- your deed was already done. Indeed, you stated you would "bet money" that Trayvon Martin wouldn't have been fatally shot if he had not been wearing a hoodie. If that moment of great lapse in judgment wasn't enough, you went on to say:

I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies... I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was.

Upon learning of the above, I almost fell out of my chair in disbelief. You attempted to later explain that you were speaking from the perspective of a concerned parent, and "that [your] mission is to save kids' lives in the real world." What you failed to realize when you made the comments -- and sadly, it did not dawn upon you later when you tried to explain yourself -- is that you were buying-into classic stereotypes concerning urban youth, particularly young African-Americans and Latinos.

That beautiful child that was killed was no more a "gangsta," to use your own language, because he was wearing a hoodie than he was one for being African-American. You did a disservice to all youth by engaging in a classic form of implicit bias, a bias that I have written extensively on because of the actions of those in your profession, and particularly of those on your Fox cable channel (an issue, though related, better left for another day).

In the event you are not aware of the term -- hidden bias, or unconscious bias, is a concept that helps explain why discrimination persists, despite polling and other research demonstrating that people oppose it. As a report of the American Values Institute observes, Doctors Anthony Greenwald and M.R. Benaji posited that it was possible that our social behavior was not completely under our conscious control.

In Implicit Social Cognition: Attitudes, Self-Esteem and Stereotypes, they concluded that much of our social behavior is driven by learned stereotypes that operate automatically -- and therefore unconsciously -- when we interact with other people. Related to this, given the sheer amount of information that bombards our senses everyday, we need to appreciate how we process and understand all that information. Our minds work through what are called "schemas." As Professor Jerry Kang notes, "if we unpack these schemas further, we see that some of the underlying cognitions include stereotypes, which are simply traits we associate with a category." What is particularly important here is that, as Kang has taught us, if we are not careful, these mental shortcuts, or schemas, can easily lead to discriminatory behavior.

Sadly, Mr. Rivera, in your comments concerning hoodies being the cause of young Trayvon's death, not only did you in effect blame the victim, a classic insensitive and ill-informed tactic, you also used your mental shorthand association of criminals with a common everyday reality for American youth of all colors and backgrounds. Simply put, teenagers wear hoodies. Heck, all athletes wear hoodies! Indeed, as a fellow parent, I do not find such attire all that urban, or a cause for any particular identification. Sadly, you did. In your comments, you associated hoodies with urban criminals or thugs. I suggest you reflect on your own mental shortcuts and associations. There may very well be something far more sinister in your implicit thinking.

I suggest your next step should be an apology to the public, and it should not be motivated by your son's reaction. It should be an apology because in your comments you displayed the same type of association the shooter displayed by virtue of young Trayvon's use of a hoodies (or his skin color).

I for one was proud, yet saddened, this past Friday when after I picked up my boys from elementary school, a group of roughly half a dozen African-American and Latino students from Miami's American Senior High walked into my local Blockbuster store. And yes, they were all wearing hoodies! They showed a solidarity and social responsibility that ideally can lead us all to learn, and perhaps eventually lead us to not make rash decisions that prove tragic.