Discerning Racism

The death of Trayvon Martin has created a significant controversy in the United States and it has attracted attention around the world.

From a legal standpoint, the main points of contention are factual in nature. If Zimmerman acted in legitimate self-defense (as he claims), then he would seem to have acted within the law. If Zimmerman did not act in legitimate self-defense, then it would seem that he would have acted outside of the law and thus should presumably be charged with a crime. There also seems to be the possibility that both people believed they were acting in legitimate self-defense and, of course, perhaps there are other possibilities as well. From an objective standpoint, the currently available evidence does not seem decisive. That is, in a hypothetical trial a competent attorney could weave a narrative that accounts for all the existing evidence that supports either the defense or the prosecution.

Not surprisingly, media folks and other people have been rather busy digging up information regarding Zimmerman and Martin. Their proponents have, naturally enough, focused on presenting positive information whole their opponents have fixated on the negative. In the case of Martin, considerable focus has been placed on the claim that he was suspended from school because of an empty bag containing marijuana residue. In the case of Zimmerman, focus has been placed on past behavior that seems negative.

Also not surprisingly, race has been brought in as a factor. It has been claimed that Zimmerman acted on the basis of racism and that Martin was shot because he was a young black man. It is this aspect of the matter that

Sign for "colored" waiting room at a...

Clearly racist.

has served to generate considerable attention.

Given the history of racism in the United States, it would not be absurd to consider that race was a factor in the incident. However, an accusation of racism requires adequate support if it is to be anything but a mere accusation. Naturally, to assume that there must be racism involved because the parties involved were black and Hispanic would itself seem to be a racist assumption. This is because it would assume that a Hispanic must be motivated by racism and not some other factors.

The difficulty of discerning whether or not racism is a causal factor can range from very easy to very difficult. For example, if people in Klan regalia murder a black person while shouting racist slogans and make it clear that they are killing the person because s/he is black, then it would be eminently reasonable to believe that racism was a factor. However, the matter is obviously not so clear in the case of Zimmerman. As such, to confirm a hypothesis of racism as a causal factor would require sorting out what would serve as evidence for such a claim and showing that such evidence exists.

As might be imagined, sorting out what counts as evidence for racism can be a rather controversial matter. As noted above, there are some easy and obvious cases (such as those involving self-identified racists who make it clear they are motivated by racism). However, when there is no Klan hood or shouted racist slogans, then a more subtle sort of evidence is called for. This, of course, raises the concern that the evidence might be rather too subtle.

One obvious starting point is the ethnicity of those involved. On the face of it, for racism to be a factor, then those involved would seem to need to differ in ethnicity (although this could be disputed-perhaps a person could be a racist regarding his/her own race). While this might be a necessary condition, it is clearly not a sufficient condition-otherwise every (presumably negative) interaction between folks of different ethnic backgrounds would be at least partially caused by racism. This seems to be so absurd that, at the very least, the burden of proof would need to be on the person who claims that racism is always a factor. Interestingly, if it could be shown that racism is always a factor, then it would not be a special factor in any such cases-since every such case would involve racism.

Getting back to the specific case, the fact that Zimmerman and Martin are of different ethnic backgrounds means that racism is a possibility-but only a mere possibility.

A second avenue of evidence is what a person says. In the United States there is a reasonably clear collection of racist terms and the use of them can be taken as evidence for the possibility of racism. In addition to specific words, there is also (obviously enough) the other things that a person might have said before or during the incident in question. It must, of course, be noted that such terms and the use of certain remarks is not conclusive evidence of racism. To use the obvious example, people in an ethnic group sometimes use racist terms regarding their own ethnicity. In an interesting coincidence, as I type this, I am listening to Kanye West and Jay-Z singing “Niggas in Paris” courtesy of Grooveshark. However, it would seem unreasonable to say that West and Jay-Z are presenting evidence of their racism against blacks. Naturally, it could be contended that the use of such terms is privileged by race/ethnicity and if a person of a different ethnicity uses such a term, then it is racist. This view, obviously enough, seems to involve accepting that racial or ethnic differences are actually significant and meaningful differences-which might be regarded as being a form of racism. However, discussing this matter would take the discussion to far afield and it must be set aside, at least for now.

There is also the fact that when people are angry, they tend to use the words they think will do the most damage or express their anger and hence they often use terms with racist connections. To use the obvious analogy, when people are angry, they also tend to swear, mainly because of what such words express and what they do. As such, saying things that sound racist need not be strong evidence that a person is racist.

Of course, it can be countered that people who are not racist do not use such terms even when angry. As such, a person using such terms when angry is saying what they really think, but conceal under normal conditions. This, of course, rests on the assumption that anger reveals what is truly in a person’s mind as opposed to the view that people say in anger what they do not really mean. As might imagined, this can be rather difficult to sort out as we do not fully understand the workings of the mind.

In the specific case at hand, the transcript of what Zimmerman said during his 911 call does not contain any blatantly racist remarks. Naturally, considerable attention has been paid to the unintelligible parts of the recording. However, these seem to be more of a Rorschach test for the listener than actual evidence of any racist comments. The mere fact that a garbled word or words might sound something like a racist word or phrase is hardly adequate evidence of racism-after all, people can hear “words” even in natural sounds and the sounds of animal and this hardly proves that the wind or a husky was actually saying specific words. Even if audio experts are brought in to work on the audio, there is still the obvious question of whether the “improvement” of the audio would reveal something that was actually said, or would merely make garbled sounds resemble a racist (or non-racist) remark. However, if the audio were properly cleaned up and then revealed unambiguously racist words, then this would be quite a different matter.

People do point to the fact that Zimmerman does say things that seem racist to them and this can be used to make a reasonable case in favor of the racism hypothesis. However, there is the obvious question of whether Zimmerman would have reacted similarly had the situation differed only by the person not being black. If Zimmerman would have said comparable things seeing a young Hispanic, white or Asian, etc., then it would be reasonable to infer that he was either not racist (or was racist towards everyone). Of course, there is the obvious question of whether such evidence is available or not.

It could also be replied that since I am a mostly Caucasian French-English-Mohawk mix, I simply cannot see the racism that would be obvious to someone of a different ethnicity/race. While it is tempting to dismiss such a response as being racist (after all, it makes assumptions about me based on my genetic background), it is reasonable to consider that different experiences that are often linked to ethnicity/race can lead to different perspectives. To support this, I will use my own experience.

While I look rather white, I have been a professor at an historically black university since 1993. While I would not claim that this enables me to have a “trans-racial” perspective, it has given me  a somewhat different perspective on matters involving race and racism. I have found that because I have white skin, people will say and do things around me without being “on guard” against seeming racist. Over the years, I have noticed that people will sometimes say and do racist things that they actually do not see as racist-though the certainly seem racist to me. One classic example is that when I first started teaching at Florida A&M University, people would innocently ask me “what is it like teaching those people?” I would, of course, say “You mean students, right?” Then there would always be a very uncomfortable pause as the person realized that they had just said something that seemed just a bit racist. These sort of experiences have served to make it clear to me that what might not seem racist to one person might, in fact, be racist when properly considered.  At the very least, it might truly seem racist to the person. As such, I would be a fool not to consider that my perception of the matter might be in error-that I am missing real evidence that others can clearly see. Of course, being a philosopher, I must also consider the fact the people sometimes see what is not, in fact, there. This raises the obvious problem of sorting out perception and reality-a matter that goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.

Third, an obvious place to look for evidence of alleged current racism is to look for evidence of past racism. After all, people tend to act in accord with their character. This, of course, can run us in a bit of a circle: to find out whether past actions where racist or not, we would need to use the standards that we need for the current case. As such, turning to past cases would require establishing that those cases involved racism. If those past cases are in doubt, then they would not serve as very good evidence for the claim that the current case involves racism. If the past cases were clearly cases involving racism, then they would lend credence to a current claim of racism.

While there has been considerable focus on Zimmerman, as this is being written there seems to a lack of decisive evidence of his alleged evidence. While absence of evidence is not itself evidence of absence, the burden of proof  would seem to rest on those who claim that he is a racist. But, as noted above, perhaps such evidence exists and I simply cannot properly interpret it.

It might be argued, as some have, that Zimmerman cannot be a racist because he is “half Hispanic.” This is, obviously enough, not a good argument. Racism is, ironically enough, an equal opportunity employer.

My overall conclusion is, obviously enough, one of uncertainty. As this is being written, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence showing that Zimmerman is a racist or that he acted from racist motivations.  Likewise, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence that he is not a racist.

Given a presumption of innocence, it seems reasonable to hold that a person is not a racist until proven otherwise. As such, I would not be inclined to claim that Zimmerman of racism at this time. If additional evidence becomes available, my view could change-but, as always, a conclusion should be based on adequate evidence that is objectively considered. I am, however, keeping in mind that I could be just as blind to evidence of racism as the people who asked me about teaching “those people” in the example I gave above.

As always, my commitment is to the truth and if decisive evidence can be provided for or against a claim of racism, then I would accept such a claim based on the evidence.

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  1. swallerstein (amos)

    Without having studied with case in detail, I would say that issue of racism and of legitimate self-defense are separate.

    If Zimmerman acted in legitimate self-defense, it does not matter if he wrote Mein Kampf.

    If Zimmerman did not act in legitimate self-defense, he is guilty of homicide, even if he is a founding member of Amnesty International.

  2. @Mike & @ Amos – I agree with the points made. But I think when it comes to racism, there is an unconscious prejudice amongst people of all races – that even tribes within the same race can be racist towards each

    Society has also imprinted on our conscious & deepened some of theses predudice.

    We may not know the answer to this question – but could Zimmerman had acted differently had Trayvon been a White or a Hispanic person? – given the same situation?

  3. @ POD… And if I may add what would have been the public reaction if Trayvon was a White person.

    In addition, what would have been the public reaction if Zimmerman was a Black person and Trayvon was white – how would the law be enforced then?

  4. The strongest evidence for racism in this case is that Zimmerman saw Trayvon as suspicious in the first place. All the kid doing was walking along, talking on a cell phone (and wearing the infamous hoodie). That’s not suspicious unless you’re inclined to see young black men as suspicious — and that’s racism.

  5. swallerstein (amos)

    I understand that Zimmerman’s initial racist suspicions about Martin set off a chain of events which led to Martin’s death, but that fact is independent of whether or not Zimmerman acted in legitimate self-defense.

    For example, angered by Zimmerman’s racist suspicions, Martin may have attacked Zimmerman and thus, led Zimmerman to defend himself with the tragic results which we all know.

    That is very unfortunate and I can understand the moral indignation of those who blame Zimmerman for having unnecessarily set off the chain of events through stupid racist suspicions.

    Thus, the ethical evaluation of the situation is a bit different than the legal one, since the legal one revolves around whether or not legitimate self-defense by Zimmerman was involved and the ethical one takes into account who initiated this tragic incident and it seems that it was Zimmerman through his blind racism who “started it”.

  6. Amos: “I understand that Zimmerman’s initial racist suspicions about Martin…” “Zimmerman through his blind racism who ‘started it’.”

    You said you hadn’t studied the case in detail but you accuse Zimmerman of “blind racism”? As Mike notes, the actual facts of this case are far from clear. We do know that some media initially released an edited version of the conversation between Zimmerman and police, apparently to make it appear as if his actions were racially motivated. Were they? I don’t know and I haven’t read anything conclusive either way.

  7. swallerstein (amos)


    You make a good point and I’ll change my comment to “Zimmerman’s probable blind racism”.


    Because given the circumstances, racism is the most probable explanation of Zimmerman’s suspicions.

    No weapons or tools used to break into houses were found on Martin. Thus, we cannot say that Martin was carrying anything (the shape of a gun under his jacket for instance) or a screwdriver which might have given Zimmerman a reason to suspect anyone of any race. Nor did Martin attempt to open a car door or a house window, signs of an attempted robbery in progress, obvious reasons for calling the police.

    Pod mentions unconscious racism above and Jane mentions that Martin was walking down the street and talking on a cellphone: that is, doing nothing that would produce suspicions in a white lad.

    I notice in myself that as I walk down the street, I feel more fearful (and suspicious) when poor youth (who tend to have dark skin where I live) approach, which is a sign of unconscious racism on my part, since on a conscious level I try not to be racist. Perhaps in Australia, where you reside as far I know, there is little conscious and unconscious racism towards people with darker skins.

    The fact that Martin was wearing a hoodie undoubtedly plays a part in Zimmerman’s suspicions, but one wonders if he would have called the police if he saw a white youth with a hoodie. Hoodies are common sportswear (I even wear them myself) and thus, someone who calls the police every time he sees another person of any race in a hoodie will run up a costly phone bill.

    Of course Zimmerman may call the police on an aleatory basis, since out of any number x of calls to the police about people walking down the street being worthy of suspicions, a number y of them will turn out to be waranted and thus, Zimmerman’s call about Martin may have been the product of this system of random phone calls.

    Otherwise, the most probable reason for Zimmerman’s original suspicions seems to have been that consciously or unconsciously racism led him to fear and suspect Martin.

    What happened after that, why Zimmerman pulled the trigger is a mystery and I will not attempt to
    provide a theory about that.

  8. What confuses me a lot in this case is how can self defense be justified?

    Trayvor Martin did not carry any weapons, and was not comitting any crime. Zimmerman was advised by the 911 operator to not pursue Trayvor.

    If you see a suspicious activity, you call the police and unless the person is comitting a violent crime you wait for the police.

    Zimmerman actions lack a coherent explanation, and are highly suspicious.

    I believe that to claim self defense there has to be a clear danger to your life. And for me is still a mistery how Trayvor alone could represent a threat to Zimmerman’s life. He had not weapons, and just an hypothetical physical attack could not be construed as a life threatening.

    I agree with Amos, the key is to determine if he acted in self defense, and I believe this can only be postulated if Trayvor attacked Zimmerman. For this I have a question how? He had not weapons and Zimmerman did not sustain significant injuries.

    Race is only relevant if it was part of Zimmerman’s intention/judgement.

  9. Dennis Sceviour

    I do not like to comment on events involving private citizens. First, it may interfere with ongoing judicial hearings or current cases. Second, I do not have permission from any of the concerned parties to discuss such matters. I wonder if anyone else shares my concerns?

  10. Very sensitive issue indeed. Very rigorously analyzed by Prof LaBossiere, I must recognize that. Yet, we have heard the same story thousand times before!
    I think it’s time to use novel tools in order to prevent any (possibly) racially motivated crime, given that identifying the putative racist motivation would almost always prove elusive. Were I an African American parent, would my children never be allowed to walk alone in dark areas where potentially racist people live. However, I do not live in the US, and that just make my comment seem ridiculous. I know. What about using better techniques to rule out potentially racist people as candidates for crucial public services like the police? I’m not a (occupational) psychologist, not even an expert in police matters, but I do think this is doable. For instance, recalling Prof LaBossiere’s interesting counterargument: “Of course, it can be countered that people who are not racist do not use such terms even when angry. As such, a person using such terms when angry is saying what they really think, but conceal under normal conditions.” This is exactly what I believe, and I am aware it’s difficult to establish this as a scientifically proven knowledge that would be useful in societal developments. Though I would like to take less, much less, risks. People who cannot control their anger and/or have proven social prejudices in the dangerous range should NEVER -ever- hold a gun, or claim they are responsible for everybody else’s security.

    The same story applies to all sorts of still-around traditional tendencies towards hatred and prejudice.

  11. Mike,
    I believe you are missing something here. Yes, there if very little conclusive evidence to say Zimmerman’s actions guided by racism. But more importantly there is the broader social context of this event in American society. I think Melissa Harris-Perry outlines this argument better.


    Give it a thought.

  12. Sheldon,

    You are being too generous-I’m sure I missed a lot. 🙂

    Interestingly, I think that both of our essays are compatible (although her’s is better). There is the rather important issue of whether Zimmerman acted from racism or not. After all, the individual does matter and should not be lost in the social context. That said, Zimmerman not being a racist as an individual is consistent with a social context of racism and it makes excellent sense to examine how this terrible incident has played out within the context of American racism (past and present).

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