04/20/2012 12:45 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

Race, Guns and Standing Our Ground

Trayvon Martin's death calls for serious conversation about race and guns.

The most important issue isn't "bad people." It's flawed culture.

The question isn't "who sinned, this man or his parents?" It's "who's this demonic power," this force that makes us think things we'd rather not think and do things we'd normally not do?
White racism, associating black skin with inferiority and danger, is one of the most pernicious demons we face as Americans.

It isn't "natural." It was created to justify morally unjustifiable slavery. Without African slaves, there would have been no tobacco industry, no sugar, coffee, rum, cotton or garment industries, no 17th through 19th century American economy. Those who benefited told themselves slavery was "good for the slaves" who were "naturally inferior," dangerous to society and to themselves if not controlled and "cared for."

Racism survived the Civil War because it justified the social-economic legacy of slavery, the dismantling of Reconstruction and the enforcement of legal segregation. It lingers in a softer form today because it gives an unthreatening rationale for striking disparities of wealth, incarceration, education, employment, health and housing that persist in America.

Vestiges of white racism affect everyday experiences.

I had a friend in seminary, one of the least intimidating people I've ever known. Despite my long hair, long beard and grubby jeans, I never was stopped by a cop or asked by another student or spouse to show my ID when I walked across campus at night. My friend was stopped and questioned frequently.

I'm white. He's black. I "belonged" there. He was treated as if he didn't. He was "suspicious." He literally had to keep proving his right to be there. Our experiences were not unique.

Black people in America typically experience racism as a relentless, pervasive, systemic reality. White people tend to experience it as isolated events -- a racist joke from an embarrassing uncle, a shocking comment, a blatant act of discrimination. It's no surprise that when black people talk about systemic racism, many white people don't get it or feel like they're being accused.

But white racism is systemic. It affects us all.

Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," stems from an experience with unconscious racial profiling. Gladwell is the very light-skinned child of a white father and black mother. He looks "white." He normally kept his hair short, but let it grow into a kind of "Afro." He started getting more speeding tickets, was more frequently pulled out of line in airport security and searched. Once, he was walking down a familiar street when a police van veered onto the sidewalk. Officers surrounded him. He fit the profile of a rapist, they said. They showed him the sketch and description of a man who was much taller and heavier, about 15 years younger than Gladwell. Other than the Afro, the man looked nothing at all like him! When he pointed this out, they took a closer look and agreed.

Gladwell didn't think the cops were hard-core racists. Something deeper was at work here than conscious racism.

The answer, he found, lies in basic survival. Our brains respond instantly to danger by identifying stereotypical patterns. Psychologists call it "adaptive unconscious." Though we often describe it as "intuition" and contrast it with "reason," it's in fact the brain's super-rational power instantly to match behavior, movement, and facial cues to patterns set by genetic and cultural transmission and personal experience. So we react immediately, before danger rises to the level of conscious awareness.

The problem is that our "gut reactions" are shaped in part by a culture still tarnished by centuries of white racism.

Gladwell describes a computerized test that measures unconscious racial associations.The idea is that we make connections more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds than we do between pairs that are unfamiliar. Researchers measure both how people answer and how quickly they answer, down to a fragment of a second.

The test has been taken online by millions of people.

By large majorities, more than 80-percent overall, participants are more likely to have negative implicit associations for black people and positive associations for whites. About half of the 50,000 African Americans who had taken the test when the book was written showed pro-white, anti-black associations! Gladwell, appalled by his own response times, took the test repeatedly, always with the same result. His response times showed a pro-white bias.
White racism is not a "white problem" or a "black problem." It affects us all. It's a systemic problem.

It's a special problem when concealed weapons enter the equation.

Police officers and soldiers get extensive, intensive weapons training to help them control "gut reactions," instant reflexes in dangerous situations.

But states don't require much training at all for private citizens who carry concealed weapons outside the home.

Some require no training. Some require no permit! Most require a half-day course that covers basic gun safety and teaches -- as the ads highlight -- how to avoid legal liability when you shoot somebody.

These laws up the ante, heighten the danger, increase the chance of a tragic reflex. Since our reflex responses are shaped at an unconscious level by racist stereotypes, this is a formula for disaster.

I grieve for Trayvon, for his family and friends.

I grieve for George, for his "gut feeling" that this young man was "suspicious," for his failure to heed the dispatcher's advice, for the fear that made him grab his gun and follow Trayvon, for the reflex response that made him kill.

And I'm angry at lobbyists and politicians who exploit our fears, who pass laws that encourage decent people with little training to play police -- not to defend their homes, but to take their guns into public spaces and "stand their ground."

The tragedy of Trayvon and George is the failure of American political culture. It's cynical, it's dangerous, and we've got to change it.