In conversation, I keep accidentally referring to Zimmerman’s defense lawyers as “the prosecution.” Not surprising, because the defense of George Zimmerman was only a defense in the technical sense of the law. Substantively, it was a prosecution of Trayvon Martin. And in making the case that Martin was guilty in his own murder, Zimmerman’s lawyers had the burden of proof on their side, as the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Martin wasn’t a violent criminal.
This raises the question, who’s afraid of young black men? Zimmerman’s lawyers took the not-too-risky approach of assuming that white women are (the jury was six women, described by the New York Times as five white and one Latina).
“This is the person who … attacked George Zimmerman,” defense attorney Mark O’Mara said in his closing argument, holding up two pictures of Trayvon Martin, one of which showed him shirtless and looking down at the camera with a deadpan expression. He held that shirtless one up right in front of the jury for almost three minutes. “Nice kid, actually,” he said, with feigned sincerity.
Going into the trial, according to one analysis, the female jurors were supposed to have more negative views about Zimmerman’s vigilante behavior, and be more sympathetic over the loss of the child Trayvon. As a former prosecutor put it:
With the jury being all women, the defense may have a difficult time having the jurors truly understand their defense, that George Zimmerman was truly in fear for his life. Women are gentler than men by nature and don’t have the instinct to confront trouble head-on.
But was the jury’s race, or their gender, the issue? O’Mara’s approach suggests he thought it was the intersection of the two: White women could be convinced that a young black man was dangerous.
Race and Gender
Racial biases are well documented. With regard to crime, for example, one recent controlled experiment using a video game simulation found that white college students were most likely to accidentally fire at an unarmed suspect who was a black male — and most likely to mistakenly hold fire against armed white females. More abstractly, people generally overestimate the risk of criminal victimization they face, but whites are more likely to do so when they live in areas with more black residents.
The difference in racial attitudes between white men and women are limited. One analysis by prominent experts in racial attitudes concluded that “gender differences in racial attitudes are small, inconsistent, and limited mostly to attitudes on racial policy.” However, some researchers have found white men more prone than women to accept racist stereotypes about blacks, and the General Social Survey in 2002 found that white women were much more likely than men to describe their feelings toward African Americans positively. (In 2012, a minority of both white men and white women voted for Obama, although white men were more overwhelmingly in the Romney camp.)
What about juries? The evidence for racial bias over many studies is quite strong. For example, one 2012 study found that in two Florida counties having an all-white jury pool – that is, the people from which the jury will be chosen – increased the chance that a black defendant would be convicted. Since the jury pool is randomly selected from eligible citizens, unaltered by lawyers’ selections or disqualifications, the study has a clean test of the race effect. But I can’t find any on the combined influence of race and gender.
The classical way of framing the question is whether white women’s group identity as whites is strong enough to overcome their gender-socialized overall “niceness” when it comes to attitudes toward minority groups. But Zimmerman’s lawyers appeared to be invoking a very specific American story: white women’s fear of black male aggression. Of course the “victim” in their story was Zimmerman, but as he lingered over the shirtless photo, O’Mara was tempting the women on the jury to put themselves in Zimmerman’s fearful shoes.
But do white women really feel threatened by black men? That’s an old, blood-stained debate. In the 20th century there were 455 American men (legally) executed for rape, and 89 percent of them were black — most were accused of raping white women. That was just the legal tip of Jim Crow’s lynching iceberg, partly driven by white men asserting ownership over white women in the name of protection. But the image of course lives on.
In the specific realm of U.S. racial psychology, one of the less optimistic, but most reliable, findings is that whites who live in places with larger black populations on average express more racism (here’s a recent confirmation). Most analysts attribute that to some sense of group threat – economic, political, or violent – experienced by the dominant majority.
Because people inflate things they are afraid of, you can get a ballpark idea of how threatened white people feel by asking them how big they think the black population is. And since they don’t realize their racial attitudes are being measured, they aren’t as likely to shade their answers to appear reasonable.
The 2000 General Social Survey asked about 1,000 white adults to estimate the size of the black population. Both groups were way off, of course: 95 percent of white women and 85 percent of white men overestimated. But the skew was stronger for women than men: 69 percent of women and 49 percent of men guessed that blacks are more than 20 percent of the population (the correct answer at the time was 12 percent).
Here are those results, showing the cumulative percentage of white men and women who thought the black population was at or below each level:
Maybe white women’s greater overestimation of the black population is not an indicator of perceived threat. In the same survey white women were no more likely than white men to describe blacks as “prone to violence” (then again, there’s social pressure to say “no”). Anyway, whether women feel more threatened than men do isn’t the issue, since the jury was all women. The question is whether the perceived threat was salient enough that the defense could manipulate it.
I don’t know what was in the hearts and minds of the jurors in this case, of course. Being on a jury is not like filling out a survey or playing a video game. But however much we elevate the rational elements in the system, emotion also plays a role. Whether they were right or not, Zimmerman’s lawyers clearly thought there was a vein of fear of black men inside the jurors’ psyches, waiting to be mined.
Originally posted at The Atlantic and Family Inequality.Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
Cade DeBois — July 15, 2013
As a white woman, I do think our society tells us in various, deeply ingrained ways to fear back men. Since I had to benefit of several black male friends, mentors and role models in my high school and college days, I often find these messages disturbing and cognitively upsetting in ways that I don't see other white women struggling with. And I see it in how other white women react to black men, with more anxiety or suspicion than they would react with to white men. This is particularly obvious to me when it's involving a black man I personally trust or, conversely, a white man I don't trust. It can be surreal, like I and the other white woman are seeing two completely different persons.
What is angering for me is I know from my black male relationships is that many black men go out of their way to put white women at ease, as they are all too aware of this, and too often, those efforts don't even register with fearful white women because they are mentally too busy assessing that man as a threat and not a human being who is trying to accomendate them.
Dee — July 15, 2013
I was nodding my head vigorously throughout this article. I've been trying to explain this and various other things with a intersectional lens to my SO--this may help!
Gman E. Willikers — July 15, 2013
I am curious....Are there any studies on how this (fear of black men) may break down along economic lines? I ask because, anecdotally, in the mid-atlantic among the wealthy (not the super rich but definitely in the top 5%), there seems to be more tolerance, but that may just be a regional exception or it may only extend to those black men who are neighbors and in the same socio-economic group.
ViktorNN — July 15, 2013
So in other words, like the vast majority of white women, the white women on the Martin jury are such racists who are so afraid of black men that they were rendered incapable of judging this case rationally based on the evidence presented.
Whew! I'd hate to have to present that argument to the many brilliant white women in my life. Let us know how it goes, Dr. Cohen.
On fearing young black men « Worlding — July 16, 2013
[...] More at: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/07/15/whos-afraid-of-young-black-men/ [...]
pduggie — July 16, 2013
ISTM that if you are going to claim self-defense, it is necessary that you describe the one you shot as a threat. Its a feature of adversarial justice all other things being equal.
SuedeHat — July 16, 2013
I'm a white woman, and would find a random guy following me in his car at night in a residential neighborhood pretty scary. I identified with Trayvon's description of Zimmerman as "creepy," because that's creepy. That seems creepier to me than a teenager in a hoodie walking in the rain.
Oh no he didn’t … | The Stay-at-Home Feminist Mom — July 16, 2013
[...] culture has so invasively ingrained the idea of the idea that black males, no matter how young, are terrifying and therefore the majority of the women on the jury were willing to believe Zimmerman’s claims of [...]
Andrew — July 16, 2013
Martin and Zimmerman with the races reversed: http://whileseated.org/image/55508157026
Raise your hand if you'd expect an acquittal in this scenario...
Link roundup: reading recs for white feminists this week | Austin NOW — July 17, 2013
[...] Dr. Philip Cohen at Sociological Images on who’s afraid of young Black men [...]
Man accused of spying in men’s restroom | Clothes — July 17, 2013
[...] Read more… [...]
XYZguest — July 23, 2013
At the end of the day you cannot explain racism to folks who will never ever want to see it.. seems like it doesn't matter how many times black/brown folks get the shit end of the stick, it's always "an isolated incident" or justified for x reason to dehumanize the non-white. It's funny, if "we're all individuals", why do so many of us get treated the same (second class)?
Loverofall — July 25, 2013
For me this is stupid. I'm a white woman...The color of someones SKIN doesnt scare me. What frightens me with (any man) that I see on the street, I the way that they carry themselves, the look in their eyes, the way they would look at me, as far as being afraid of someone. It has nothing to do with color. But i think that maybe area might have something to do with white women being afraid of black men. Maybe in a city where crime is high. it is a fact that a lot (NOT ALL, thats for sure) gang violence has to do with black men. Going to a school with ALL races growing up, I dont fear or care about skin color. having mixed races in my family makes me look past the color of someones skin and to look at there actions.....
Village Idiot — July 26, 2013
A bit late, but so it goes...
Quoting: Of course the “victim” in their story was Zimmerman, but as he lingered over the shirtless photo, O’Mara was tempting the women on the jury to put themselves in Zimmerman’s fearful shoes.
Maybe he was trying to counter the inordinate amount of air time that the much more youthful picture of Martin had received in the media prior to charges being filed or a jury being picked? After all, it wasn't the cute little kid seen at the top of this post who Zimmerman encountered that night and to leave that potential impression in the minds of the jurors would be a misrepresentation of the facts.
And I guess O'Mara was lucky the women weren't "tempted" by the shirtless photos in other (less sympathetic to Zimmerman) ways.
I don’t know what was in the hearts and minds of the jurors in this case, of course.
Me neither, but I suspect it might have been something similar to "...according the evidence, it was self-defense" but for some reason that possibility doesn't seem to be getting much air time in the rush to extrapolate all kinds of conclusions about society in general from the trial even though it was a specific individual and a series of specific events that were on trial, not society as a whole. It's almost like Zimmerman was supposed to be found guilty no matter what because racism still exists and someone has to pay.
It was a little odd to read the perspective conveyed in this post in light of other posts I've read on this very blog. From reading the posts linked below, it would seem that lingering over the photos of a shirtless Martin would have been a viable tactic for both the Prosecution AND the Defense as far as "tempting" the women on the jury was concerned; Zimmerman's lawyer might've lingered on it to trigger any reactionary walking-alone-at-night-being-followed-by-a-scary-black-man fears they might have but the Prosecutor could've done so as well with the hope it would remind at least one of them of fond memories of their "exotic" vacation to Jamaica, perhaps.
Or maybe most of us are so irrational that we can be scared of someone if we encounter them at one place and time and turned on by them at a different place and time. But the Defense lawyer showed the photo in a well-lit and relatively safe courtroom which is a far cry from a dark, deserted street.
Had he instead staged a less-ambiguous demonstration where (for example) the jurors watch a guy in a hoodie walk down a dark, empty street then are asked to think about how the person they watched made them feel I'd bet the jurors' responses would fall somewhere between "a little concerned" and "really scared" (and notice I didn't specify the race of the actor demonstrating the hoodie-walk) so IMO it was a very risky move on the part of Zimmerman's lawyer to show the photo they way he did it.
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[...] Who’s Afraid of Young Black Men? @socimages on the Trayvon Martin prosecution. [...]
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[…] Who’s Afraid of Young Black Men? @socimages on the Trayvon Martin prosecution. […]
Sandy Hook, “White-on-White Crime,” and How Privilege Kills | Carte Blanchfield — December 11, 2014
[…] to regularly misidentify black teens as armed, and to “shoot” them when given the option in simulations. Outside psychology labs, on our nation’s streets, black male teens are twenty-one times more […]
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