Misplacing the Source of Threat
By Jon Green
On February 26th Trayvon Martin visiting his father in a gated community in Sanford, Florida when George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman, shot him. Zimmerman claimed self-defense; Martin was holding a pack of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Over the subsequent weeks, the public has turned attention to the events surrounding Martin’s death. The Department of Justice has also opened an investigation into the actions of both Zimmerman and the authorities who readily took Zimmerman at his word that he feared for his safety and, according to ABC News, “corrected” a witness when she stated that the cries for help that she heard were from a boy, not a grown man.
Last Friday, Geraldo Rivera took to the airwaves of FOX News to give his take on the Trayvon Martin case. After briefly expressing sympathy towards Trayvon Martin and his family, Rivera’s remarks quickly devolved into a racially charged tirade against the clothes stereotypically associated with young African-Americans and Latinos:
“I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was … When you see a Black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid that confrontation … [Trayvon Martin] didn’t deserve to die. But I bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”
Rivera then implored African-American and Latino parents to forbid their kids from leaving the house wearing hoodies, adding that he has frequently yelled at his son for doing as much.
According to Rivera, it is too much to ask to expect a person to check their xenophobic urges associated with racially charged stereotypes. However, Rivera finds it totally reasonable to expect African-Americans and Latinos to avoid certain clothes out of fear that they will invite racially based violence. According to him, we should sympathize with George Zimmerman because “we’re ALL afraid of black people in hoodies, right?”
On a college campus like this one, the stereotype associating hoodies with African American gang members is obviously misguided. Colleges across the country graduate millions of hoodie-wearing millennials every year; almost none of them have criminal records. Rivera’s fear of people wearing hoodies is irrational and devoid of factual grounding. It’s also hypocritical; since he made his comments numerous pictures of Geraldo Rivera wearing hoodies have emerged on Tumblr.
While Rivera’s comments are not only reprehensible because they blame Martin for his own death, it is far more likely that if Zimmerman did in fact feel threatened it was because he was holding a gun, not because Martin was wearing a hoodie. While unfounded racial stereotypes certainly do not help, forthcoming research from The University of Notre Dame and Purdue University finds that any person, racist or otherwise, who is holding a gun is more likely to perceive others as also holding a gun:
“In five experiments, subjects were shown multiple images of people on a computer screen and determined whether the person was holding a gun or a neutral object such as a soda can or cell phone. Subjects did this while holding either a toy gun or a neutral object such as a foam ball.
The researchers varied the situation in each experiment – such as having the people in the images sometimes wear ski masks, changing the race of the person in the image or changing the reaction subjects were to have when they perceived the person in the image to hold a gun. Regardless of the situation the observers found themselves in, the study showed that responding with a gun biased observers to report “gun present” more than did responding with a ball…
…The researchers showed that the ability to act is a key factor in the effects by showing that simply letting observers see a nearby gun did not influence their behavior; holding and using the gun was important.”
The study shows that the phrase, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” cannot be considered universal. Given access to means of violence, people who would not otherwise act violently do so because they wrongly perceive others as being able to harm them. In other words, guns really do kill people. Abraham Kaplan coined the famous (and mistakenly-attributed to Mark Twain) saying: “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If Zimmerman had not been in possession of a gun, not only would he have been unable to shoot Martin, he may not have felt threatened in the first place.