07/14/2013 04:28 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2013

Trayvon's Ultimate Issue: An Implicitly Unjust Justice System

The Problem with Implicit Bias

Trayvon Martin couldn't keep his skin color in the closet, but he'd still be alive if he could. For all we know, he could've been in the closet as Bisexual, but he wasn't profiled for that reason. He was followed by Zimmerman that night due to a salient marker: skin color. Moreover, Zimmerman didn't follow Trayvon because he wanted to give him a ride home out of the rain... we don't live in that mythical world.

We live in a world where explicit racial bias has become so socially sanctioned that when implicit (or unconscious) bias occurs, people are reluctant to accept it. It leads to people becoming immediately defensive, stonewalling and shutting off any further discussion. The desire not to know it still exists and the desire not to accept it in its implicit form work in a contrapuntal fashion.

Implicit bias is also harder to acknowledge -- even the person doing it may be completely unaware. To understand the ease in recognizing explicit bias, imagine if the screaming voice shouted "TRACY TRACY" (given that there's no reason Zimmerman would have been screaming the name of Trayvon's dad). But the voice on the tape wasn't that explicitly discernible, leaving the jury and many observers to make an implicit judgment.

There Was No Explicit 47 Percent Tape of Zimmerman's Implicit Racial Bias

Take the implicit association test yourself here to get a better idea of what this is. Given that this case generally deals with policing bias (granted Zimmerman isn't a cop), let me call your attention to an implicit association investigation done by Joshua Correll et al. (2002). In a series of studies where they had participants make shoot/don't shoot decisions in a video game simulation, they found both white and black participants were faster to shoot an armed black target compared to an armed white target, and slower not to shoot an unarmed black target compared to an armed white target.

This reinforces the fact that, as a society and largely through our shared media, we have created and perpetuated a cultural consensus regarding implicit social biases. Do you think all those black participants have explicit racial biases against other blacks? Of course not, but they likely had implicit, unconscious biases instilled through years of media conditioning and reinforcement, and those biases are manifested in implicit tests like this.

This lack of awareness of implicit racial bias, as well as the desire not to believe any racial bias still exists, likely explains the reaction to Paula Deen's explicit racism. Thus, if we consider the Zimmerman Case, the implicit nature of the bias likely lead to a stronger desire not to accept it. To convict Zimmerman would've been tantamount to a recognition that implicit racial bias exists and can be grounds for guilt in the judicial system. The verdict suggests that our country is not ready to accept & deal with this implicit manifestation of racial prejudice.

Trayvon's Ultimate Issue

Imagine that while going to teach their college students one afternoon, a teacher was met in the hallway with a statement drenched in role expectations. While wearing slacks, a buttoned shirt, and tie, someone told him "you look very gangster today." The teacher assumes it was meant as a compliment from someone who, despite being in an academic institution and in pedagogic apparel, couldn't help but perceive him through their brain's cognitive framework of the role Blacks are expected to play. The teacher just continues on his way to the elevator without saying anything. Since the teacher didn't say anything in response, an administrator may be more likely to consider his concerns because he/she can't blame the teacher for any actions.

Now, if the teacher had said something in response and complained about it to an administrator later, he may have been reprimanded for being defensive. Particularly because the only evidence he had was implicit.

Indeed, Trayvon may have had a better case if he didn't defend himself. For minorities, defending oneself is only applicable post-hoc, or after an injustice has occurred. This fact is borne out in data showing that Stand-Your-Ground has no viable legal utility for black defendants. Data like this explains why almost no one considered the fact that Trayvon could have been defending himself; it was only considered for Zimmerman.

This is not to suggest that I blame Trayvon anymore than I blame the teacher walking to the elevator this past Spring semester. Trayvon's journey to Heaven at an early age has left us with a historic observation and understanding of where America is on race. We have an amazing justice system for explicit racial bias, and such overt/conscious behavior is exceedingly rare. We have an inept justice system for implicit racial bias, and such covert/unconscious behaviors are far more common, in addition to being color-blind at times due to shared media. Our laws must be updated to account for implicit bias, or the only true chance at redress many Asians/Blacks/LGBT/Hispanics will have will be after forfeiting their right to self-defense.