Jordan Davis – Law and Implicit Prejudice

While what would have been Trayvon Martin’s birthday recently passed, a similar trial was finished in court – the trial of the murder of Jordan Davis. On November 23, 2012, Michael Dunn pulled into a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. He saw a red SUV full of black teenagers playing loud music and walked up to them to complain. He thought he saw a gun being taken out, so he shot at the teenagers, killing Jordan Davis. Recently, Dunn was convicted of attempted second-degree murder of the three other teenagers in the car. The jury was hung, however, on the charge of first-degree murder of Jordan Davis, so another trial will be held.

The situation provoking this case is a clear example of implicit racism as described by the field of social psychology. Jennifer Eberhardt and her colleagues performed an experiment to investigate the stereotypical association of blacks with crime and guns. They brought in white male college students and used subliminal priming of black faces, white faces, or no faces at all. They then presented these participants with an objection recognition task; they were shown blurred images that slowly came into focus. The participants who were primed with black faces recognized crime-related objects faster than other participants. Eberhardt concludes, “When people see black faces or think ‘black people,’ they are also immediately thinking ‘crime.’”

It is not too difficult to apply this study to the murder of Jordan Davis. When Michael Dunn saw the black teenagers, he was primed to think about crime. When he saw an object being taken out, he then thought of it as a gun, even when no gun was present. Now, this is not exactly the same as Eberhardt’s study, in which actual guns existed. Nevertheless, it follows that if people were quicker to identify guns because of stereotypical associations, they would also be more willing to see a neutral object as a gun.

Like the Trayvon Martin case, the Jordan Davis case demonstrates the inadequacies of many laws in dealing with issues of race. Dunn is able to use the “Stand Your Ground” law for defense. This law says that a person does not need to retreat for self-defense if he or she feels threatened. Feeling threatened, however, is easily subject to prejudices, such as the association with blacks and crime described by Eberhardt. A person such as Dunn or George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case can feel threatened because the person is black, not because the person is actually threatening. This implies that the “Stand Your Ground” law may not be directly discriminatory but has a discriminatory effect. It does not explicitly say that white people are justified in using lethal force against black people, but it has had that effect in the Martin case and has at least complicated matters in the Davis case.

“Stand Your Ground” is not the only law that is not blatantly discriminatory but has discriminatory effects. Many government laws and programs, such as welfare programs and housing laws, have harmful effects on black Americans. This raises the important question: how can these problems be addressed? Is the “Stand Your Ground” law or other laws themselves that are the problem? Or is the way that society interprets these laws? If society’s interpretation is the sole factor, then one may question how effect law can be in progressing civil rights. On the other hand, perhaps lawmakers could be educated better to write laws so as to nullify at least some potential discriminatory effects. This would be difficult, of course, because it would require governments to recognize race as a serious issue instead of one that was solved in the 1960s. Perhaps what is really happening is the interplay of law and society. Those who oppose racism should work on both aspects to generate social change. Changing laws could have an effect on society, just as changing society can have an effect on what laws are passed.