CRUE Discussion Guide: The Death of Trayvon Martin

In a Q & A about his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explains, “When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions.” Gladwell also emphasizes, “We need to be careful with our powers of rapid cognition.”

The death of seventeen year-old Trayvon Martin last month after being shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer who described Trayvon as “suspicious,” demonstrates the tragic consequences of relying on first impressions. Trayvon, a good student and athlete, planning on becoming a pilot, was bringing a bag of candy home to his brother on the night of his death. Trayvon was also a Black male, and that was probably all the George Zimmerman knew about him when he decided to follow him and ultimately shoot him. In talking about Trayvon, Melissa Harris-Perry declared, "too many young black men are losing their lives to mistaken identity and overzealous assumptions about their criminal intent." Zimmerman remains free and his father thinks the characterizations of his son as racist are unfair. However, racism isn’t just something that impacts us on a conscious level. Charles R. Lawrence III writes,

Americans share a common historical and cultural heritage in which racism has played and still plays a dominant role. Because of this shared experience, we also inevitably share many ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that attach significance to an individual’s race and induce negative feelings about opinions about nonwhites. To the extent that this cultural belief system has influenced all of us, we are all racists. At the same time, most of us are unaware of our racism. We do not recognize the ways in which our cultural experience has influenced our beliefs about race or the occasions on which those beliefs affect our actions. In other words, a large part of the behavior that produces racial discrimination is influenced by unconscious racial motivation.

George Zimmerman is not aberrant or different from us because he likely jumped to conclusions about Trayvon, he did something we all do, often without even noticing it. Trayvon’s heartbreaking death is a chance to pause and think about how we can become more mindful of our unconscious biases and the actions we take as a result of them, as a part of our daily practice of “being good.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. How might “rapid cognition[s]” have influenced other aspects of the events surrounding Trayvon’s death? For example, how might they have impacted the Sanford police’s decision not to test Zimmerman for drugs and alcohol even though this is standard procedure, or the decision not to arrest Zimmerman?
  2. Think of an incident where your own unconscious racism surfaced and caused pain for another person. What thoughts and associations caused your behavior? How can you work towards challenging and changing those thoughts and associations?
  3. How do you think the story of Trayvon’s death impacts your students? What ideas do you have for addressing this and similar incidents with your students and empowering them to work for change?

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