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April 16, 2012 4:20 PM There Won’t Be Unity on the Trayvon Martin Case Anytime Soon

By Jesse Singal

The Trayvon Martin trial is going to be contentious, emotional, and covered relentlessly by media types who can’t get enough American-on-American rhetorical violence. It’s also going to be a prime opportunity for pundits and politicians to stand up and, eyes welling with tears, channel their inner Rodney King: “Can we all get along?” That is, can’t we set aside our differences and try to reach some sort of consensus?

But if the poll released last week—not to mention almost everything we know about social science—is true, then the likely answer is: No. No we can’t.

In the poll in question, which Reuters commissioned from Ipsos, 1,922 Americans were asked about the Trayvon Martin shooting. Not surprisingly, the story has reached almost total saturation at this point: Across every racial and political cut (other than independents, who trailed slightly), more than 9 in 10 Americans had heard about the case.

But that’s where the similarities end. Take the question of whether “Trayvon Martin is an innocent who was unjustly killed.” Sixty-five percent Democrats agree that Martin was innocent, while just 27 percent of Republicans feel that way (whenever I write “agree” or “disagree,” I’m referring to the totals from the “strongly” and “somewhat” agree/disagree categories). But if the political divide is a mile wide, we’re talking interstellar distances when we move on to race: 91 percent of blacks agree that Martin was innocent, while just 35 percent of whites do.

It’s not the case that the poll indicates that the vast majority of whites and Republicans are convinced that Martin somehow had it coming. In both cases, almost 50 percent of those polled said they “Neither agree nor disagree”—that is, aren’t sure—what happened that night.

But it’s still striking that different groups of people with the access to the exact same information—in theory at least—could come to such radically disparate conclusions about what that information implies. It suggests what social scientists have been telling us for a long time: we’re terrible at being “objective.” Rather, our judgements are weighed down by all sorts of racial and ideological and network biases. We seek out evidence that supports our views, ignore evidence that doesn’t, and work ourselves up into righteous lathers by reinforcing the beliefs we share with our friends and pointing to and laughing at the idiots on the other side.

Everyone thinks that they are looking at a given situation rationally or objectively, but this may be almost impossible given our cognitive architecture. I happen to think that all the available evidence suggests Martin was killed because of Zimmerman’s overzealousness. But I’m a student in a liberal-minded, public-service-oriented graduate program, so in certain senses my reaction was preordained. The second my friends and I heard about the shooting and saw the reaction from the right, certain mechanisms clicked into place in our head. Unarmed black teenager killed: check. Crazy, racially motivated reactions from conservatives who seemed hell-bent on painting Martin as a thug: check. We’d seen all of this far too many times before.

Conservatives reacted similarly, but in the opposite direction. They had a play of their own already rehearsed, but with the actors characterized differently, the script rewritten to support their own biases. I think they’re very, very wrong, and are being opportunistic and manipulative with respect to what little hard evidence is available.

But however right I feel I am, it’s a hard circle to square, to try to both acknowledge our biases and evaluate a situation “rationally.” I’d like to think that if evidence came out tomorrow that Martin had somehow instigated the shooting, I’d be willing to integrate it into my view of the case. But it wouldn’t be easy. My brain would be pushing against it every step of the way. Maybe that’s the closest we can come to common ground here—realizing that none of us have the equipment we need view such a tragic, emotionally wrenching case dispassionately.

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.

Comments

  • Ron Byers on April 16, 2012 4:24 PM:

    It's good to know that about 50% of the people have it right. Nobody knows for sure except maybe George Zimmerman and I wouldn't be surprised if he isn't unsure himself.

  • trog69 on April 16, 2012 4:40 PM:

    I don't know if it's enough, but to be able to see the bias in oneself is a good start toward seeing more clearly. I agree that it is very hard to change course, mentally, when we have such big engines pushing in one direction.

  • Rick B on April 16, 2012 4:51 PM:

    "I’d like to think that if evidence came out tomorrow that Martin had somehow instigated the shooting, I’d be willing to integrate it into my view of the case."

    That's easy to integrate. FOX news would be conspiring with Zimmerman to get him off.

    Of course I am totally objective! How could that ever be doubted.

  • Ken in Madrid on April 16, 2012 5:01 PM:

    Very thoughtful post, Jesse. You're right. The reality each of us perceives, whether we're contemplating the tragic Trayvon Martin case, the advisability of going to war with Iraq, or the many other issues we form opinions on, is powerfully influenced our prior life experiences.

    I wonder if there's a blogger on the right who has posted a blog as reflective as yours.

  • Dave S on April 16, 2012 5:03 PM:

    I don't have a vested interest in the outcome. I was outraged that Zimmerman wasn't charged and kept waiting for charges and arrest. The District Attorney has charged Zimmerman with a crime, he's in custody and I'm more than content to let the legal system do it's work. That's how it works.

    Sure, it seems like a 17 year old buying Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea wouldn't be the one to cause the problems, but I'll let the legal system sort it out. More often than not, the legal system gets it right.

  • Christiaan on April 16, 2012 5:07 PM:

    "But it’s still striking that different groups of people with the access to the exact same information—in theory at least—could come to such radically disparate conclusions about what that information implies."

    Access to the exact same information? Are you serious? Did you miss the polls that show that Republicans watch Fox and distrust everything else ("liberal" media), while Democrats watch and trust everything but Fox? And if you think Fox and other media dissipate the same information, I've got a country to sell you. That's the theory, and it's also the fact. It's a fact that half the nation gets non-factual information and the other half gets different information (which may or may not be factual.)

  • howard on April 16, 2012 5:24 PM:

    fwiw, i think the belief that martin wasn't innocent is a reflection of the belief that he assaulted zimmerman, not a deeper "he had it coming for being in a gated community anyhow."

  • Kathryn on April 16, 2012 5:59 PM:

    I've paid way too much attention to this case but I believe that after the girl friend on the phone heard the initial confrotation which consisted of Zimmerman saying what are you doing around here and Trayvon saying, why are you following me.....don't know in what order those sentences were uttered. Trayvon Martin was shot quite quickly after the phone call was interupted. The 911 tapes show Zimmerman's frustration when he says with a sigh, they always get away, he follows Trayvon after being told to stand down, and the death occurs within a minute (I think) of the confrontation. The voice screaming desperately for help abruptly stops after the shot. I've done some screaming in my time and if I were screaming as Zimmerman claims to have been, I would be gasping and still making noise after the shot. Furthermore, doesn't Trayvon have the right to fight back, if in fact he did? I find the attempt to paint Mr. Martin as a hood when the 911 tapes indict Zimmerman, the nature of his visit to Sanford, the contents on Mr. Martin's person (candy, ice tea, cell phone) all point to an innocent walk to the convenience store,rather disgusting.

  • Kathryn on April 16, 2012 6:02 PM:

    I've paid way too much attention to this case but I believe that after the girl friend on the phone heard the initial confrotation which consisted of Zimmerman saying what are you doing around here and Trayvon saying, why are you following me.....don't know in what order those sentences were uttered. Trayvon Martin was shot quite quickly after the phone call was interupted. The 911 tapes show Zimmerman's frustration when he says with a sigh, they always get away, he follows Trayvon after being told to stand down, and the death occurs within a minute (I think) of the confrontation. The voice screaming desperately for help abruptly stops after the shot. I've done some screaming in my time and if I were screaming as Zimmerman claims to have been, I would be gasping and still making noise after the shot. Furthermore, doesn't Trayvon have the right to fight back, if in fact he did? I find the attempt to paint Mr. Martin as a hood when the 911 tapes indict Zimmerman, the nature of his visit to Sanford, the contents on Mr. Martin's person (candy, ice tea, cell phone) all point to an innocent walk to the convenience store,rather disgusting.

  • Citizen Alan on April 16, 2012 6:03 PM:

    The question I have for Republicans is this: If Trayvon Martin had been carrying a gun and had shot and killed Zimmerman and claimed to have done so in self-defense, would any of those people currently defending Zimmerman and slandering Martin switch sides and defend Martin with the same zeal?

  • fostert on April 16, 2012 6:07 PM:

    I don't know what to think about Trevon Martin. But I do know what to think about the Sanford Police Department. They are racists until they prove otherwise. This is the town that ran Jackie Robinson out of town when he played AAA ball. If you can't accept a Hall of Fame player on your team just because he's black, you have a long way to go before you can claim to not be racist.

  • dalloway on April 16, 2012 6:10 PM:

    If they admit Zimmerman was wrong, they have to blow up their whole superhero avenger fantasy world where all problems can be solved by righteous white men toting guns. If they admit Trayvon Martin was completely innocent and killed for being a "suspicious" black person, then their neat Us vs. Them, Good White People vs. Bad Black People article of faith also falls apart.

    This case is very threatening to conservative America. That's why I hope the prosecutor has a slam dunk for that second-degree murder charge -- like forensic evidence the gun was fired from several feet away, which would show Zimmerman's story of Martin attacking him to be a lie, which I believe it is.

  • cwolf on April 16, 2012 7:20 PM:

    The Trayvon Martin trial is going to be ...
    cancelled due to police incompetence/sabotage/corruption/racism/etc..

    Does anyone really believe this clusterf**k will fly?

  • Crissa on April 16, 2012 7:50 PM:

    About the only thing Trayvon could've done is possibly take Zimmerman's gun and threaten him with it.

    The lack of time to do such a thing leads me to doubt that is the case.

    Besides, why does Trayvon's self defense begin with running while Zimmerman's begins with chasing with a loaded unsecured weapon?

  • Mitch on April 16, 2012 8:00 PM:

    @dalloway

    "...would show Zimmerman's story of Martin attacking him to be a lie, which I believe it is."

    What I keep asking my Conservative friends and family is this:

    In what world is shooting somebody "self defense" for being assaulted by an unarmed kid anyway??

    Maybe it's just me, but Zimmerman looks quite a bit bigger than Trayvon. Was he that scared of a skinny little 17 year old that he had to blast him away? Even if Trayvon did take a swing at Zimmerman, the shooting should not be justified.

    And that's the ultimate problem here. Not this particular case, but the Stand Your Ground Law itself. Anyone can kill anyone, and all they have to say is, "I was under threat."

    The truth is that before Stand Your Ground, the law ALREADY allowed for self defense as justification. Under this unjust law, though, almost anyone at any time can claim self defense and get away with murder.

  • Ed Diggs on April 16, 2012 9:14 PM:

    I want to explain why I disagree with the poster who said the following: "Sure, it seems like a 17 year old buying Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea wouldn't be the one to cause the problems, but I'll let the legal system sort it out. More often than not, the legal system gets it right."

    I don't think the legal system correctly determining a person's guilt more than 50% of the time is acceptable. You might have not meant over 50%, but that is clearly what "more often than not" means.

    And a secondary issue is that the justice system often gives a criminal too much penalty or too little. The basic problem is that people with more resources will be punished far less for the same violation.

    None of us should be happy with the criminal justice system. It has been failing us for far too long.

  • LaFollette Progressive on April 16, 2012 9:15 PM:

    Nobody is entirely sure what happened, so I don't think that answering "neither agree nor disagree" is a particularly wrong-headed response.

    But really, even if Martin initiated the actual physical confrontation with the guy who was, by his own admission, following him and carrying a gun, I'd have to think that Martin had a right under Florida law to stand his ground.

    Even if he was not entirely "innocent" in the encounter, the fact that he was SHOT DEAD while packing only iced tea and skittles would indicate that his killing was unjust in any meaningful sense of the word.

    And even if Martin did land a few punches, the video of Zimmerman at the police station casts serious doubt on the claim that he was in a life-or-death struggle.

    So I'm not willing to give much benefit of the doubt to those who look at the available facts and come to the conclusion that the killing was justified. It may not be Murder Two beyond a reasonable doubt, but no matter how badly ALEC and the NRA have distorted Florida law, it sure as hell wasn't "justified". Let's not let critical self-awareness of our own biases cause us to lose sight of that.

  • Texas Aggie on April 16, 2012 9:20 PM:

    While Jesse's point that we don't know what happened is technically true, we are able to make some very educated guesses. We don't know that the world won't end tonight either, but we don't really give the thought that it might much credence. We do know that Trayvon was unarmed and that Zimmerman had been following him. We do know that the police had told Zimmerman to drop it and he didn't. We do know that Zimmerman outweighed Trayvon by a good 50 - 75 lbs. We do know that Zimmerman has a history of problems along the same line. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that Zimmerman was out of line. And it is unreasonable to think that he was totally innocent and defending himself against an unprovoked attack.

  • Kill Bill on April 17, 2012 12:40 AM:

    I don't know what occurred before the shooting.

    I do know that after it the police allowed Zimmerman to go free.

    That, IMO, is what will decide the outcome no matter how may pundits and civil rights leaders, both of which tire me, bilge endlessly on the issue.

  • Ed Diggs on April 17, 2012 1:54 AM:

    A basic problem I have with the criminal justice system is how much a person's race often changes the outcome. My understanding is that if the victim of this case had been white, then Zimmerman would have been tried and convicted. However, since the victim was black Zimmerman will be declared not guilty. That is why the prosecutors chose not to charge Zimmerman with anything. They knew the outcome and prosecutors only spend time on cases that they can win.

    I was appalled, when I heard Zimmerman's defense lawyer say that the legal system in this country is amazing and that the system will discover the truth. He knows full well that the outcome of this case is contingent on the race of the Trayvon Martin.

  • Patango on April 17, 2012 3:00 AM:

    A good analysis there Jesse

    BUT, (lol) going by your own well laid out criteria , I am unbiased , I am a older white guy , and feel an unarmed innocent teen was shot and killed unjustly , I know I carry liberal blinders also , so I am always weary of my own bias'

    So we step back , if a teen was shot in my neighborhood the exact same way as Martin , There would be outrage

    If it was one of these republicans kids being shot in the same way as Martin ? Can you imagine the GOP saying " WELL , THE KID MIGHT HAVE HAD IT COMING "??? I'm sorry , but objectively , it is RIDICULOUS to think of these GOP peeps being ok with it going down like that

    There will always be a difference between right and left in the worldly realm , after 9/11 dems wanted to go after the terrorist , the repubs? iraq..... "Objectively" we are in 2 different places

    I'm also thinking that once more dems are educated on what the affidavit says , and more details come out , people will be changing their minds , the zimmerman GOP NEWS NETWORK disinformation team did a hell of a job , as they always do

  • jrosen on April 17, 2012 11:18 AM:

    One small cavil: It will be the Zimmerman trial, not the Trayvon Martin trial. Watch out for those framing biases!

  • Kija on April 17, 2012 1:47 PM:

    I think you err in assuming they access the same information. FOX listeners are overwhelmingly white, so are listeners or rightwing talk radio. Anyone listening to talk radio and FOX has been "informed" that Trayvon said "You are going to die tonight" to john Zimmerman, that the voice crying for help was identified as Zimmerman's, that there were 8 eyewitnesses that confirm that Zimmermann was on the ground being beaten by Martin, that Martin was a drug dealer, that he was a burglar, and the list goes on.

    They do not have equal access to information, not at all. A significant portion of white Americans regularly listen to media that present outright lies on a regular basis and have no respect for facts, honesty or journalistic integrity.

  • Patrick Henry on November 16, 2012 9:55 AM:

    I think we need to consider that the information for both sides comes fron the same place. Careful not to allow emotional appeals to logic by those who stand to profit from a death decide the outcomes of our thinking. I see a lot of words put into the mouths of those who haven't spoken yet, and find it even harder to believe in the idea that anyone opposite idealogy from me is necessarily evil by that virtue; if what we have all said about each other is true, we would be all killing eachother in the streets! But really, fear warps any form of confrontation or communication, and the most likely event is that the death was merely a tragic accident using the same emotionally based reaction as the controversy over it has been using in opposition. I really dont think everyone around me is that way. If course, unless we all expect eachother to be that way in disagreement. Why follow an event like this with more accusations and self serving misunderstanding of each other? We can make our judgments of others reality, but logically, I do not see why anyone would want to. Harmony comes before justice. Justice alone can find anyone to justify itself, and at that point, how would anyone even know if it was justice anymore?