Becoming Color Blind: Can the Trayvon Martin Case Help Overcome Racial Conflict?

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The Trayvon Martin case has raised a lot of questions about the state of race relations in the United States. In an effort to help, we should look to social psychology research for solutions.

2012 has been an interesting year and I wonder if it’s going to become a watershed year in United States history. So far we’ve watched those on the far right side of the political spectrum alienate women by escalating their attack on our reproductive rights, and I’ve been excited to see these events finally galvanize the women who have been so complacent up to now. Now I’m wondering if 2012 is also going to be the year that forces the United States to confront and hopefully resolve our race problem. It would be about time.

For a country founded on liberty, we have an extremely dark and vile history of using discriminatory, harsh and even violent behavior towards those we view as ‘Other’ or different (read: inferior) from ourselves. Just follow the Trail of Tears. Learn about the history of Irish and Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. Read up on the Stonewall riots, Japanese internment camps, and the Salem Witch Trials (or heck, just google “violence against women” and see what you get). Peruse some of the recent laws about immigrants coming out of Arizona. In short, the phrase “land of the free” comes with a whole lot of caveats.

While we’ve been discriminatory and cruel to any number of Other groups, the United States has an especially difficult history with African-Americans. Even the hyphenated name is problematic because it indicates that ‘real’ Americans, you know the ones we write and talk about without the hyphen, are only those whose ancestors came from Europe. So, I get that the phrase is troublesome but, in the interests of simplicity, I will go with African-American for now.

African-Americans have endured slavery, severely unjust treatment, Jim Crow, segregation, and other forms of discrimination — both legal and illegal — that are too numerous to mention. Many people hoped that this type of racially-based injustice would be solved by civil rights laws, and some were. However, a lot of discrimination remained and prejudice never truly went away; it just went underground and became harder to fight. I think we’ve seen it resurface with the election of our first president of color, and now we’re seeing it again with the Trayvon Martin case.

For those of you unfamiliar with the case, Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old African-American young man who was shot and killed on February 26th by George Zimmerman, a man some are calling “white Hispanic” because he has both backgrounds. Martin was walking home from the store carrying nothing more than candy and a drink. Zimmerman, concerned that Martin was involved in criminal activity, called the police, then (against their advice) confronted Martin. When the police arrived, Martin was dead. The police investigated and did not arrest Zimmerman, citing a self-defense justification for their decision.

Since then, the country has erupted, and race is back in the national conversation. There have been marches, school walkouts, petitions, people removed from their jobs, a $10,000 bounty placed on the head of Zimmerman, and additional state and federal investigations into the case. People are outraged that this crime has been swept under the rug largely because of race. I would argue that there are also some other extremely problematic factors at work here — ridiculous laws, gated communities and concealed weapons to name just three — but I want to focus on race right now because, as a country, we’ve done a horrible job of dealing with it.

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We need to do a lot better in facing our prejudices, and fortunately, social psychology has some of the answers. One possible solution lies with a classic psychological study, The Robbers Cave Experiment (named for the area in which the study took place), conducted in 1954. In this experiment on realistic conflict, twenty-two 11-year-old boys were divided into two groups. There were three phases to the study. First, the boys were encouraged to bond with their group. Next, they were introduced to the other group, they were encouraged to compete with one another, and friction was allowed to develop. Third, they tried various methods of reducing the conflict between the two groups. They were successful and, on the ride back home, the two groups merged into one.

One thing the study found was that mere contact between the two groups was not enough to reduce the conflict. That’s why the “some of my best friends are [fill in the blank]” excuse does not necessarily hold water. The friends can become exceptions (“You’re not like all those others”) or the contact is just enough to enhance the already-disliked aspects of the group. This tendency was beautifully depicted in the wonderful film, Remember the Titans, which is based on a true story. In the movie, a high school football team was integrated, and the two races were not getting along. Each team member was forced to room with a team member of another race, but that didn’t do the trick.

Instead, in both the Robbers Cave Experiment and Remember the Titans, what was needed for the two groups to reduce conflict was for them to be forced to work together on superordinate goals — goals that can only be accomplished by cooperation from everyone. In the Robbers Cave Experiment, the boys had to band together to pull a broken down bus and to find enough water for the entire camp. In Remember the Titans, the boys had to come together in order to play football well enough to win. Thus, when everyone has to work together to finish a task, differences subside and they start seeing each other’s strengths, uniqueness and worth. I saw this exact response in real life when I worked on a Presidential Commission examining women’s roles in combat. The men in units in which women held vital roles were much more likely to believe in equality, while the men in units in which women were absent or in marginal roles were not. Similarly, police departments across the country found that by ’embedding’ police officers in neighborhoods, and getting people to know them, and vice versa, crime went down. Consequently, if we want to reduce prejudice, encouraging interdependence is essential.

However, there are four other conditions that must also apply in order for the interdependence to work. The contact between two groups must involve (1) interdependent cooperation (2) between equal status participants (3) who have the potential to become friends (4) and it must be done in an environment with social and institutional support. For both the Robbers Cave participants and members of the Titans football team, all four conditions were met. Both groups worked on superordinate goals, they had the support of their social and institutional environment (the study leaders and the Titans’ coaches), all group members were treated equally and they could (and did) become friends. The same was true for military units in which all members of the team were needed and treated equally. Other real life experiments (e.g., the “jigsaw classroom“) have also demonstrated the importance of these conditions.

So, what does this mean for race relations in the United States today? Clearly, there are no easy answers but some things do stand out. First and foremost, there needs to be more integration between the races. Instead of ‘white neighborhoods’ and ‘black neighborhoods’ there needs to be a healthy representation of both everywhere. This was the first problem with the Martin case. If there had been more African-Americans in the gated community in which Zimmerman lived, Trayvon Martin’s presence would not have been so unusual. The same holds true for every place in our country, from schools and the workplace, to community centers and civic groups. Once you start seeing people in Other groups more often, they become less different and more like you. For example, a new commentary show on MSNBC TV, the Melissa Harris-Perry show, does something different with guests: she includes lots of women and people of color. I hadn’t realized how much I missed seeing women and people of color as experts until I was seeing them, and as I watched, their novelty faded; they became more familiar. In reducing conflict, familiarity is vital.

Second, in service of the first condition, we need to find ways to work cooperatively, and have social and institutional support in doing so. Groups dedicated to social justice need to realize that political and environmental success depends upon a ‘jigsaw’ approach: these groups need to be more fully integrated, and each group member should have a vital piece of the puzzle in order for things to work. For example, essential jobs in these organizations should be filled by people of both races (really, by people of all colors and genders), and when they work within any community, the teams should comprise people of both races. As such, the organizations themselves would be lending support to the concept of cooperation, as well as setting up tasks that involve interdependence. If all goes well, members of the groups will become friends.

While I am aware that much of this sounds overly optimistic, I am hopeful that it can become reality. In the past weeks I’ve seen various types of outrage over the Martin killing, from people of all colors. I’ve seen marches and protests that involve both races. Indignation about the reek of injustice and prejudice of this case permeates more than just one segment of our population. As with the situation with women, perhaps the danger and unfairness of our race problems have reached such epic proportions that people are now waking up and calling for answers. I hope that is true. If so, then Trayvon Martin may have accomplished more in his tragically brief life than most people. It would be a fitting legacy.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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