For our contemporary racism class, we read an essay by social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt. The essay summarized her and her colleagues’ work on the cognitive associations we make about Black people and crime. For me, the findings were like a knife in the gut: we have unconscious prejudices that we often aren’t aware of, that can have dire consequences. In one study, participants were either unconsciously primed to think about crime or received no such prime. Then, two faces, a Black face and a White face, were flashed next to each other, at the same time, on the screen. This happened too fast for the participants to be consciously aware of it. Participants were then told to identify the location of a dot that appeared on the same screen. The dot was either near where the Black face had been, or near where the White face had been. When primed to think about crime, participants were quicker to identify the location of the dot when it was next to the Black face then when it was next to the White face. Eberhardt and colleagues expected that if participants were primed to think about crime, they would unconsciously look at the Black face. And if they were already looking at the location where the Black face was, then they would be quicker to identify a dot in that location when it was flashed. And that is exactly what they found: participants who had been primed to think about crime identified the dot when it was in the Black face location more quickly then when the dot was in the White face location. This shows that we may hold unconscious associations between Black people and crime, which has the potential to shape our actions without us even realizing it.
I read this article for class a few days after I had been made aware of the case of Jordan Davis and Michael Dunn, which eerily echoes the Trayvon Martin case in many ways. In November 2012, Jordan Davis, who was Black, and some of his friends were parked in a convenience store, playing loud music and waiting for a friend to return to the vehicle. Michael Dunn, a White man, told the boys to turn the music down. The boys turned the music down, but Davis told his friends to turn the music back up. An argument ensued between Davis and Dunn. Dunn used his 9 mm handgun, for which has a permit, to shoot Davis several times. Dunn told the police that he thought he saw Davis pick up a shot gun in the car, and that he felt threatened. Dunn will soon be under trial for attempted murder and murder; his defense is Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” law. (Facts about this case taken from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/murder-trial-begins-florida-man-killed-teen-loud-music-spat-article-1.1600462 and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/25/ron-davis-jordan-davis-florida_n_2550359.html).
This research by Eberhardt made me wonder about what Dunn actually saw in that car. If our unconscious associates Blacks with crime, is it possible that that association can actually affect how we see the world? Perhaps Dunn really saw a shotgun, albeit an imaginary one (no weapon was ever found). Maybe. It also could be that Dunn’s power as a White man was challenged by a Black youth who wouldn’t conform to wishes. Do you think that is what happened in this situation? What factors most influenced how this tragedy unfolded?