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Goff, Ifill: Seeing race to save our children

Monday, February 24, 2014

In the wake of the disappointing verdict in the Michael Dunn trial, Sherrilyn Ifill and Philip Goff, argue that "[w]ithout an honest effort to engage the realities of race and perception, we will continue to see sanitized prosecutions in cases involving shootings laden with racial implications. And worse, we will see more black and brown children whose lives are cut short by the racially charged imagination of shooters whose misperceptions are protected by law."

What were Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman thinking when they each killed an unarmed black teenager? Some say too much is being made of race in these cases and others believe racial bigotry led them to pull the trigger.

While we will never be able to read the minds of Dunn or Zimmerman, it is important for people following the case to see what mind scientists know about race, perception and violence: that race is nearly always a factor in perceiving nearly everyone, and this is rarely to the benefit of black boys.

To the first point, it is nearly impossible for anyone to be literally colorblind to race. This is because race has become a category that individuals use to sort people quickly into categories. Identifying someone's race happens within milliseconds of looking at them and almost as quickly as noticing their age and gender.

Many will admit to seeing race, but claim to be able to forget it. While it might be well intentioned, mind scientists know that this sentiment is almost always untrue. So, let's know this: we see race. Deal with it.

"So what?" you might say. "We physically see race. Why does that matter?"

Well, as it turns out, once race is seen, as Walter Lippmann said, the stereotypes our culture has about those groups "floods fresh vision with older images." We literally perceive individuals differently based on their race -- even if we are not racist people. In some cases the result can be innocuous, but it can cause someone to see a white job applicant as more trustworthy than a Latino one, an Asian man as more feminine than a white one, or a black pedestrian as armed with a gun ... when he is not.

Well-documented studies have found that individuals report mistakenly seeing guns in the hands of black suspects where they do not exist. This is not the case for white suspects. Importantly, prejudice did not cause these errors. Simply being aware of the stereotype and seeing an individual's race was enough. Literally, seeing was misperceiving.

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