Trayvon Martin: The Problem with the ‘Some of My Best Friends Are Black’ Defense

Research on racial perception proves that even the most diverse group of friends doesn't make one immune to race-based prejudice

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The country remains riveted by the case of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American high school student who was killed by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood-watch vigilante who invoked Florida’s increasingly controversial “stand your ground” law as a successful defense against arrest. Zimmerman has a black friend named Joe Oliver, who during an interview on Nancy Grace said, “As a black man, if I didn’t know George Zimmerman, I would be outraged too. But I do know him.” Oliver has repeatedly vouched for Zimmerman’s character and, along with Zimmerman’s family, says the fact that Zimmerman has a black friend is proof he was not racially motivated in his actions toward the young black man whom he admitted shooting.

But there’s a problem with this defense: the scholarship on racial perception clearly proves that even the most diverse group of friends doesn’t make one immune to race-based prejudice, whether it is conscious or unconscious.

(MORE: Trayvon Martin: The Neuroscience of What Makes People Trigger-Happy)

The fact that race-based prejudice exists is undeniable. In a 2004 study, co-authored by psychology professors at Stanford and Yale, white people associated stereotypically black faces with higher levels of criminality than they did with those of whites. In addition, whites were less apprehensive about shooting black people, as demonstrated through a video-game simulation.

This bias is expressed and reinforced through the media. Author and antiracism activist Tim Wise has documented that local newscasts over-represent African Americans as criminals, relative to their actual share of total crime, and over-represent whites as victims, relative to their share of victimization. According to Wise, a large percentage of white hostility toward black people can be traced to the overwhelming amount of negative media imagery about them, even after all other factors are considered. And public-opinion polls consistently show that whites express greater fear of crime when in the presence of African Americans and assume greater guilt of African-American criminal suspects accused of crimes than of white criminal suspects accused of the same offenses.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, a 2011 study specifically looking at the impact of interracial friendship on white concern about local crime found that when white people have close relationships with black people, their concerns about crime actually increase. More broadly, when scholars have studied the racial beliefs, feelings and policy views of whites who have contact with blacks as friends, acquaintances or neighbors, they consistently find that the negative racial perceptions of those whites are substantially similar to the perceptions of whites who have no black friends. Friendship with black people — and even being a black person — does nothing to change racial bias. Indeed, almost one-third of black people hold similarly negative views.

(MORE: Touré: Why I Speak Out About Trayvon Martin)

This isn’t just an academic subject to me; it’s deeply personal. Growing up, my son was pretty much the only close black friend that any of his white friends had. He had other black friends, but he was the only black male in AP and honors classes at his prep school, and for most of his soccer career, the only black player on his travel team.

His high school soccer career ended when one of his teammates screamed “Stop that n—–!” from the sidelines, referring to the opposing team’s star player. When my son took offense, the coach, who had known him since he was 10, told him he was overreacting. My son’s “friend” who did the hollering said, “But I wasn’t talking about you. I don’t think of you that way.” But how that teammate would characterize my son did not extend to the unknown black player on the field.

In my house, we know that having a black friend is not the same thing as not having stereotypical views of black people. If America is going to address this kind of all-too-frequent, radicalized viewpoint, we’re going to have to sober up about the limitations of friendship. It would seem as if there are many more George Zimmermans in the world than we may be comfortable admitting. Some murder. Some use racial epithets. Some do things even more subtle, like pass over black candidates for jobs or educational opportunities.

It’s gratifying that we are paying so much attention to what happened to Trayvon Martin, and we can only hope that the justice system will finally begin to seriously evaluate the entirety of the case. However, in the face of so much data about the kinds of attitudes that led to this tragedy, we must also begin to aggressively address the subconscious views so many in this country have about young black men.

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