Trayvon Martin and the Burden of Being a Black Male

We welcome another guest post from Corrine McConnaughy, a political scientist at The Ohio State University.


Could race could have played any role in the confrontation that resulted in Treyvon Martin’s death and in the jury’s interpretation of the evidence  that led them to acquit George Zimmerman?  Answering those questions is very hard, in part because we do not have direct, objective evidence on exactly what occurred between Martin and Zimmerman, nor statements from the jury about their thought processes. What social scientists know about race, however, questions whether even that evidence would give us the answer. “Race” can work in ways that are exceedingly difficult to detect. White opinion of blacks contains important implicit biases as well as stubbornly persistent explicit prejudice.  Although no firm conclusions are possible about Zimmerman and Martin, I will note two features of their altercation and Zimmerman’s trial that could have exacerbated implicit bias.  And I will describe new research showing how explicit prejudice toward blacks singles out black males like Trayvon Martin in particular.

Many studies have demonstrated a decline in overt racism over the last several decades.  White Americans have become less likely to say that they believe that African Americans are inherently inferior to whites, such as that they are less intelligent or hardworking than whites, and more likely to support contact with blacks, such as by living in neighborhoods with a significant number of black residents and by inter-racial marriage. Negative sentiments about blacks still exist, of course. The percentage of whites who express overt racism hovers around 20 to 30 percent. Yet, clearly many white Americans have moved past racism, making it plausible that the individuals involved in the Zimmerman trial—Zimmerman himself, the lawyers, the jurors—had no racial bias motivating their thoughts and actions.

Stopping at overt racism, however, is stopping far too short. Research on aversive racism uses implicit measurement strategies to show that even those white Americans that express racially egalitarian views are not immune from holding—and acting upon—racial prejudice. Negative implicit views are most likely to produce discriminatory or harmful behavior toward blacks when there is no social monitoring of the behavior—that is, no one is “watching”—and the behavior can be justified or rationalized based on a factor other than race. Those who are racially egalitarian on both explicit and implicit measures, however, do not engage in such behavior.

This points to a first feature of Zimmerman’s altercation: it was an interaction that was observed clearly by no one.  Witnesses could only sketch bits of what transpired that night.  None of them was visible to Zimmerman.  Other things equal, this makes it more likely that race played a role in that interaction, even if Zimmerman holds no overtly racist beliefs about blacks. Negative racial attitudes or affect of which Zimmerman may not even be aware remain untested but plausible motivations for his actions.

This brings us to the second feature: the Zimmerman trial judge’s decision to sharply limit the explicit reference to race—including denying the prosecution the ability to argue that Zimmerman engaged in racial profiling.  Studies of the legal system and aversive racism show that the less explicitly race is engaged in the discourse in the courtroom, the more likely aversive racism is to influence the decisionmaking process of the jurors. Thus, the judge’s decision also makes it more likely that race played a role in the outcome of the case.

Finally, there is the question of whether it mattered that Martin was a black male. Here we do not have to ferret out unconscious forms of racial bias.  This bias is readily evident in media coverage of crime, which disproportionately emphasizes violent crime perpetrated by non-white males and helps to increase support among white Americans for more punitive crime policies.  Such bias is also evident in public opinion.  Ismail White and I have been conducting a number of studies on the uniqueness of attitudes toward black men. In a nationally representative sample of white Americans, we find that black men are indeed considered uniquely violent. While a traditional question about racial and gender stereotyping finds that whites perceive “blacks” as more violent than “whites” and “men” as more violent than “women,” a question that asks about combinations of these identities—black men, white women, etc.—shows how black men are uniquely stigmatized.  More than 40 percent said that many or almost all black men were violent, but less than 20 percent said that of black women and white men. The figure below displays these results (with the bands indicating 95 percent confidence intervals). mcconnaughy1

We also extend one of the implicit measures of racial attitudes, the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP), to measure how white Americans view not simply blacks and whites, but men and women of each race.  As displayed in the figure below, we find that black males elicit the most negative sentiments. Indeed, those who responded the fastest to the measurement task—thus the most clearly expressed implicit bias—registered not only extremely sharp divides between black men and whites of both genders, but also made a clear distinction between black men and black women.

mcconnaughy2In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, some commentators have reflected on the social burden of black men and even asked who is afraid of (young) black men.  Our research demonstrates that black men do in fact face unique burdens—one of explicit racial blame and also the deeper scar of implicit bias. Trayvon Martin was a part of a social group that many white Americans distinctly malign. While we cannot say with certainty exactly how his race and gender mattered that fateful night in Sanford or in the subsequent trial of Zimmerman, his case offers an important opportunity to understand and perhaps start to undo this unique burden for black men.

26 Responses to Trayvon Martin and the Burden of Being a Black Male

  1. Ajax July 16, 2013 at 3:50 am #

    It seems McConnaughy has turned Zimmerman into an Anglo to fit a conventional cookie-cutter mold of a mind set. What about the dynamics between Hispanics and Blacks? That would seem to be key to this case. Your article is about something else. It looks very re-cycled.

    Exactly how ‘White’ is Zimmerman?

  2. KG July 16, 2013 at 6:22 am #

    There is some good research showing implicit bias exists across racial boundaries, Ajax. That is, black people can also hold similar stereotypes about black men. Harvard researchers discovered this through their implicit bias tests. While the proportion is lower for blacks than it is for whites, it is still quite possible to have black ancestry and also have a negative view of black men. Whether or not Zimmerman’s grandfather was black says (almost) nothing about his ability to harbor implicit bias towards black men.

    In addition, it’s commonly held that race is a social construct. It is also commonly held that “Hispanic” is not really a race. One can be white Hispanic, black Hispanic, so on and so forth.

    While Zimmerman’s level of ‘whiteness’ is irrelevant to the underlying social context the entire situation occurred in, it would seem it is much more accurate that he be described as a ‘white’ person. Particularly since he describes himself as such and since race is socially constructed, that’s the way he portrays himself to the rest of society.

    It would seem splitting hairs over such matters distracts from real problems with society; the type Corrine describes in this piece. Especially since you don’t have to be 100% white to stereotype black men.

    • Mark July 16, 2013 at 8:21 am #

      You are incorrect. GZ considered himself to be Hispanic. This post by McConnaughy has no relevance in a case where a Hispanic guy killed a black guy.

    • ijij July 16, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

      This opens a new question though: could Treyvon Martin, who shared African heritage with Zimmerman, have been a victim by racial bias against himself? Could he have racially profiled *himself*, imagining his only option to backtrack towards Zimmerman throwing punches?

      • jpe July 16, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

        the thug motif in Martin’s pictures remind one of Invisible Man a bit, in which a black man conforms himself to white mythology of the violent black man.

  3. Corrine McConnaughy July 16, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    Several points about the claims of irrelevance here. First, as KG notes, “Hispanic” is an ethnicity, not a race. Our data include Hispanics who self identify as white – because we ask ethnicity and race as separate questions. Second, there is plenty of evidence, including in some of our work, that even blacks have internalized implicit negative attitudes – that is, the stuff that motivates implicit bias – about black men. Third, even if the altercation between Martin and Zimmerman had nothing to do with race (and the point is, none of us can know that with any certainty), there is plenty of room for race to have worked – again, most likely in unconscious processing ways – in the legal proceedings. Finally, the overwhelming point of this post is that our discourse on race needs to pay attention to the complexity of the ways race can enter – even and especially in the absence of overt racism – in social interactions and in politics.

    • Mark July 16, 2013 at 9:01 am #

      So, when it’s convenient in academia you can classify Hispanics as white or as non-white depending on what point you want to make? I’ve actually paid attention enough to know that many in academia consider “people of color” to be a collective oppressed by the white hegemony but now when the preferred narrative of GZ as a crazed white racist seeking to gun down black kids has collapsed, you’ll just change the rules to make your point, moving from a conscious white racist to an unconscious something or other? What you are doing may be “political” but it sure isn’t “science”. Looks like these kids in Baltimore also take exception to your view:,0,5135359.story

      • KG July 16, 2013 at 10:24 am #

        I think “self-identify” may have been overlooked when you read Corrine’s response. That is quite the accusation you are making there without objectively exploring the methodology implemented in arriving at these results.

      • Andre July 16, 2013 at 12:11 pm #


        Though at first when this case was publicized many jumped on it saying it was overt racism it was found that these claims were unfounded. However as the true facts came out obviously that was not the case. People of color is a completely different classification than when we classify race or ethnicity. You could call someone hispanic and that could be from any country a latin decent which does not apply to color of the skin. Conversely you could call a South African White or someone born in Nigeria white if they were in fact white. African Americans are uniquely only black and thus the disconnect on that.
        Nothing is changed you just failed to pay enough attention.

        • ijij July 16, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

          “There is plenty of evidence, including in some of our work, that even blacks have internalized implicit negative attitudes – that is, the stuff that motivates implicit bias – about black men.”

          This is disingenuous because we all know you’d never be posting this–indeed, you’d be totally unaware of the situation, if Zimmerman were black.

          Also, if race and ethnicity are unrelated, what empirical evidence points towards the conclusion that Zimmerman is white in spite his mestizo and African heritage? How do you know Treyvon Martin is black?

          • Corrine McConnaughy July 16, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

            I won’t engage your presumptions about me personally. But you have a real and common question about racial identity. Race is a social construction, not a biological trait, and so it is difficult to understand its boundaries–especially as they change over time and context. In empirical work in social science we use quite a number of measures of identification. In this case–which is outside the confines of a scientific study–we know that Trayvon Martin is black because his family and community have defined him as such (that’s as close as we can get to self identification information – though perhaps he left behind evidence claiming that identification) and we know the rest of our society has seen him as such. Whether Zimmerman is white or not is admittedly less clear – the “evidence” that he is socially defined as such is that so many people have deemed him to be, but I am not privy to his personal identification.

          • Andre July 16, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

            To expand on Corrine’s comment, this post is not about Zimmerman being white or black or what he self identifies as. It is the covert racial bias that black men face amongst the general population. Not because anyone is malicous or trying to undermine anything but because of a multidue of factors including as Corrine stated, the disproportionnate depiction of blacks in media as violent. And if Zimmerman was black Corrine’s data still points to a bias against other black men as being precieved as violent.

            As you stated this wouldn’t be written if not for the fact that Zimmerman is not socially identified as black. However it does raise another great question as to why this isn’t an issue when people of the same race have a bias to one another which perpetuates stereotypes. Unfortunately ( Or Fortunately I guess on how you view the events) Zimmerman is not identified as black, Martin is identified as black and as such in has initiated a discussion among us.

            Also if you need more evidence of this bias here is a pretty widely circulated experiement called the clark doll experiment.

  4. Corrine McConnaughy July 16, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Again, there is nothing in my post that makes any claim that I know whether and how race mattered in this particular case. It is simply to explain a very long line of social science research – which spans multiple disciplines, including political science, psychology, and sociology – and my own newer research which together imply that our conversations about this case and race and about race in general in contemporary America need to be far more complex than they typically are.

    • Mark July 16, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

      My problem is not with the data and the general conjectures you make. It certainly accords with my own observations over the years and fits into a broader pattern of attitudes about many things including race.

      My problem is trying to insert this information into a non-relevant context. You keep talking about “conversations” (whatever that nebulous term means) about race but in this case race was injected into this case by the race hucksters like Sharpton and his friends in the media in order to sow racial divisiveness and hatred. That narrative was overturned by the facts. It’s bizarre to now on this thread have the narrative changed from GZ was a racist white guy to “whatever, it really doesn’t matter”, let’s have the same discussion anyway.

      There actually were two moments in this case where race really did play a factor. First, in TM’s mistaken profiling of GZ as a “creepy-ass cracker” and second, and more significantly, in the prosecutor’s overcharging the case in response to the clamor for GZ’s head. If you listened to the evidence at trial it is clear this case should never have been charged as second-degree murder and for any jury, regardless of race, to have convicted on that charge would have been a travesty. There was a potentially viable case for charging GZ with involuntary manslaughter but, ironically, the focus on race by the professional race men and their acolytes prevented a more rational course of action.

      • Corrine McConnaughy July 16, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

        I’ll take your simplest criticism here first. By “conversations” I intentionally mean something nebulous – or rather, broad. What is happening here on this site is a conversation. Same for other sites and news outlets discussing this case and other current events about which people are pondering the racial implications. It’s called public discourse, and it’s central to a functional democracy. And so yes, I welcome the conversation here.

        As for the assertions you make about the case. I do not think that there are any “facts” that (could) demonstrate whether or not Zimmerman is an overt (or what is often termed “old-fashioned” in the academic literature) racist. There is no diagnostic test we can reliably apply to an individual, and the “facts” of the case were sharply limited in their ability to speak to Zimmerman on this dimension, in part because of the judge’s rulings on the use of race in the prosecution’s arguments. If you are concerned about a narrative of this case that over-focuses on Zimmerman being an old-fashioned racist, I don’t think we disagree there. I am asking us to think about the entire set of actors and processes involved.

        Where I do think we disagree is in our willingness to make strong assertions about “knowing” how race mattered in this case. My post lays out the number of ways it plausibly might have, based on sound social scientific research, and explains why we can’t know, but still ought to think about, whether race mattered in those ways in this particular case. Because we do need open and evidence-based discussions of race in America, and this case is an opportunity-however it was thrust into the national spotlight-to have those.

        • Mark July 16, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

          I assume from your statement that you think we have not had open discussions of race in America. I thought I’d been involved in one for the past 50 years so you obviously mean something other than what we have been doing. Why do you think we need open discussions on race in America along the lines you propose and how would they be different? Do you really think it will be helpful? Have you considered the possibility it may make things worse? Do you think that open discussion by those, who even as we speak, continue to insist that “old-fashioned” racism is work here, even though they are in error as you point out, is helpful? Or are they adding to racial divisiveness and hatred? Or have you considered that this may be their goal?

          Difficult issues like this are hard to deal with in complex and large societies like ours. Maybe even in smaller ones. I get along well with most of my neighbors but I don’t really want to know what they think on hot-button issues because that could disrupt our neighborly harmony. Often the less we know what each of us really thinks about things the easier it makes it for us to get along – it actually makes it easier to tolerate each other.

          The further reason for my hesitation about terms like “conversation” and “dialogue” on hot-button issues is that my experience has been that people using the term often mean a process by which I and others sit in a room while we are instructed what we can say and think about the particular issue. I find that frustrating. When I, and others, say what we really think and push back on the assumptions that dialogue “convenors” (see, I know the terminology) bring to the discussion they get frustrated so it’s not really productive for any of the parties.

          • Corrine McConnaughy July 16, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

            Having an informed and ongoing public discourse is, yes, what I mean. I do not place the burden on any particular person to have any particular conversation. Society is ever-changing; what social science is able to demonstrate is ever-changing. Therefore I think we as a society need to keep talking with those realities on the table. That is all.

            • Mark July 16, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

              Here is the reality on the table. The loudest voices, who continue to insist on “old-fashioned” rascism dominating this discussion are directing the public discourse. Today, the Attorney General, whose parents and grandparents came here from Barbados in the early 20th century because America offered them opportunities they could not find elsewhere, threw some gas on the flames and virtually declared Zimmerman a public enemy, announcing the setting up of a public tip line so GZ can be harassed into his grave. Making sure this never ends serves his purposes as well as those of the rest of the braying pack on the media. That purpose is to make sure it stays this way – forever. That’s why any discussion on this subject will always rise to a fever pitch between those with his viewpoint and those of us who do not want to make this a country where we are merely defined by our race, ethnicity and gender, which to return to my initial post is the dominant theme in academia (my children got the indoctrination at their school – fortunately they decided to become real science majors).

              You may want to have a quiet informed discourse and I’m actually interested in the analytical side of this but any discussion we have will not inform the larger “realities on the table”.

            • Mark July 17, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

              I would further add that one of the linchpins claims of your article that “the Zimmerman trial judge’s decision to sharply limit the explicit reference to race—including denying the prosecution the ability to argue that Zimmerman engaged in racial profiling” is misleading. If you read the article to which you linked the judge was actually ruling against a defense motion to bar the use of terms like “profiling”. While the judge added that “racial profiling” could not be used, the prosecution stated it had no intent to use it anyway since “There are a number of avenues someone can be profiled in any one way or combination. We don’t intend to say he was solely profiled because of race.” [This is all from the article you linked]

              It also obscures the larger truth which is that the prosecution was free to introduce any actual evidence of racial motives or bias that GZ had demonstrated – it was precisely this type of evidence it needed to support the intent portion of its second degree murder charge – it failed to do so because it had none.

              If what you are actually suggesting is that the prosecution should have been allowed to use language for which it had no supporting evidence then I find that reprehensible.

  5. KG July 16, 2013 at 1:39 pm #


    More missed opportunities to have open, honest discussion about race relations when conversations devolve in this manner…

    • jpe July 16, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

      if anything, this dialogue appears open and honest.

      • Mark July 16, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

        I agree with JPE.

      • KG July 16, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

        Perhaps I misspoke. I see this conversation going down a path like so many others about race in the US right now (sadly). Predispositions are brought to bear and become self-reinforcing.

        I am less interested in what commentators believe to be ‘absolute facts’ of how race did or not affect the Zimmerman case, or who did and who didn’t inject race in a place where (maybe) it didn’t belong. I am more interested in talking about American race relations in a broader sense, which drew me to comment here in this first place. Not whether or not race was properly/improperly applied to one of many legal cases involving people from different racial backgrounds.

        So I’ll just sit back for now and observe (what is it they say on the radio, “I’ll take your comments off the air”).

        That being said, just one final observation: Very well-written piece, Corrine. I hope similar research into implicit bias experiences a revival in the aftermath of this rather unfortunately divisive legal case. However, I’m curious to see some comparative research — is this mechanism uniquely American? Perhaps it’s a western phenomenon, indicating it is driven by something other than centuries of tense race relations witnessed in the US? Is the black man situated in such a way only in pre-dominantly white countries or does this sort of bias exist in, say, Latin America?

        • Mark July 16, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

          Regarding your final observation you may want to read The Long Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race and Law in the American Hemisphere by Robert Cottrol (2013) which is a comparative study along the lines you raised. I learned a lot from it.

  6. Robert July 26, 2013 at 8:40 am #

    I don’t understand how one can deny race as a factor in this altercation. Zimmerman obviously racially profiled Martin. One of the defense witnesses was a mother whose house was burglarized by black suspects and the relevance of her testimony could only be to buttress claims that Zimmerman was indeed racially profiling Martin. What other reason could he have for stopping a young man he doesn’t know and has no right to stop? The only thing Martin had in common with these alleged black burglars is the color of his skin. Has the prosecution done a better job, they would have called it “racial profiling” instead of just “profiling” since race is, from the most reasonable perspective and based on the trial, the only reason Zimmerman had for stopping Martin.

  7. Devin September 6, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    The problem with this analysis of the race bias in the case is that all of the studies quoted use WHITE subjects. Zimmerman is Latino.