Trayvon Martin and the implicit prejudice of faith

Trayvon Martin and the implicit prejudice of faith March 30, 2012

By now many readers of this blog are probably at least slightly aware of the Trayvon Martin killing. As the news reports continue to come in, certain characteristics of the incident remain stable: George Zimmerman, a 20-something half-white, half-Latino neighborhood watch member in the gated community of Sanford, FL, identified Trayvon, a 17-year-old unarmed African American teenager who was visiting relatives in the same community. Zimmerman put a bullet in him after calling police (who told him not to pursue Trayvon) and reporting Trayvon as a suspicious-looking individual. Some disagreement is now in the newsfeed over whether there was physical conflict or not between Zimmerman and Martin, but it’s clear that most of the organized voices have sided with Trayvon’s family who are asking for justice. Part of the complication here is that Zimmerman has not been arrested for this shooting. And part of the defense for Zimmerman’s innocence rests on responding to Trayvon’s manner of dress, particularly donning a hoodie with the hood covering his head. This has sparked national-level concern over well-worn territory that we’re familiar with: was Trayvon killed because Zimmerman made an association between racial blackness and criminal behavior when he saw Trayvon with his hood covering his head? Could racism have somehow played a subtle or overt role in Zimmerman’s decision to pull that trigger? If so, our President’s comment that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon has a sad and chilling ring; we still harbor a reflexive animosity toward black Americans.  In a split second a young teen’s life is lost, a family is forever changed, and those of us who identify as black are left wondering if this can happen again, especially if one is a young man

Since I am often interested in the intersection of religion and race, I paid closer attention to the news pieces that have noted Zimmerman’s religious background. Prior to living in FL, Zimmerman’s family was known as devoutly Catholic in Manassas, VA. Apart from that I haven’t seen much talk of his local faith community in FL speaking in his defense. I have seen a couple of evangelical bloggers raise the issue over the curious near-silence over Trayvon’s death in American Christian news outlets. Zimmerman’s faith matters to me because I sometimes hope that somehow religion puts our base instincts in check, just long enough (so I hope) before a tragic mistake happens. And I’m reminded that in my current work at my local church there is a young boy who could also be a Trayvon in a few years.

Recent research is shedding some light on whether there is a connection between religion and racial prejudice. In a published study from the psychology department at Baylor University, researchers examined what they call the Christian-racial-prejudice hypothesis: “people subliminally primed with Christian words would report more covert and overt negative attitudes toward African Americans than those primed with neutral words.” (2010: 120)

How priming works: participants are asked to identify whether a string of letters shown on a computer screen  is a word or a non-word (“butter” or “jurnhy”). Participants stare at a fixed point on the screen for 1 second, followed by a pre-mask of 70 milliseconds (ms), followed by the prime word for 35 ms, and a post-mask for 70 ms. The screen turns blank for 395 ms, and the letter string appears, and then the participant is asked whether the string was a word or non-word. They repeat this 80 times per participant. As you can see this experiment goes by very fast, and that’s precisely the point: it’s a way to determine if subtle cues can actually elicit different reactions in people.

The Christian priming words included: Bible, faith, Christ, church, gospel, heaven, Jesus, Messiah, prayer, sermon. Half of the participants in each experiment were randomly assigned neutral priming words, or Christian priming words.

After running this priming exposure test, participants then fill out a set of questions that tap into the following:

-overt prejudice – a 10-point thermometer question of general feelings toward African Americans

-Covert anti-black prejudice (the Racial Argument Scale – participants read 13 paragraphs about African Americans, and each paragraph concludes positively or negatively toward African Americans. Rather than ask whether the respondent agreed with the argument or conclusion, the test asks to what degree one believes that the “arguments were supported by the conclusions.” (p.121))

-Underlying emotion toward African Americans (5 measures – 2 pick up fear toward African Americans, 3 identify disgust toward African Americans).

This study consisted of 116 young adults, 63 of whom were white, non-Hispanic, and in terms of religion 71 were Protestant, and 28 were Catholic. So the results apply largely to young white Christians. The basic findings: activation of Christian religious concepts increases subtle and overt prejudice toward African Americans, but not greater underlying emotions.

The researchers offer some possible explanations over why these religious concepts have a significant relationship to negative feelings toward a racial minority group. One might be that these concepts are often developed in religious settings that are largely homogenous racially. It’s not that Christian terms are infused with antipathy toward blacks but that the process of socializing these words engenders a sense of in-groupness. This in-groupness is subconsciously racialized, and thus we have the makings of a bundling of racial awareness with religious belief.

They rightly emphasize that the study is highly limited in scope and do not claim that this evidence of causation. What they do report is that an identifiable negative shift in attitudes toward blacks emerges from this kind of priming.

We’ll of course probably never know what went through Zimmerman’s mind when he shot Martin, and this new research suggests that if his faith was active it likely did not associate positive feelings toward those who appear African American. It’s troubling to think that due to our unresolved racism, the words that Christians associate with the Prince of Peace may continue to instill prejudice.

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