This week the picture of Mohamed Ali in a black hoodie has gone viral—a sense that even The Greatest must feel lucky, “there but for the grace of God…”
The death of Trayvon Martin in Florida last month is every mother’s worst nightmare. It is not the cause of African American, Latino, Asian, or any one ethnicity or race of children. This child’s death is every child’s death at the hands of conscious and unconscious bias. For George Zimmerman it meant something to see a young, black man wearing a hoodie, walking in an upscale neighborhood. In a month or two it will be another person’s bias about a young Asian man wearing a leather jacket at a mall, later it will be a Latino youth carrying a back pack outside a fast-food shop or a white teenager wearing all black clothes. We will grieve again. We will hold rallies. We will write essays.
Every mother has argued at one time or another with their child, “are you wearing THAT to school?” We have pleaded, “please get home before dark”. We have all said, “it is not you that I’m worried about, it’s the others out there that I don’t trust”. And now we can add another: “take that hoodie off”.
It’s pointless of course. It is just a false sense of security that the life of our children can be protected from a deadly equation of motive and opportunity. Murder is motivated by a myriad of emotions that are triggered by an equally broad range of factors. We cannot possibly give warnings to our children about every combination of emotion and triggers to avoid among strangers. Some of Zimmerman’s friends have said he was not a racist. And I would suggest that he might successfully argue he was not aware of how much he was motivated by hate or racial prejudice—this is the true challenge of unconscious bias. Everyone one of us has a range of unconscious bias--beliefs and assumptions--that we act on in an instant. We see an African American walking toward us and without thinking clutch our handbag, clench a fist. We see a group of Latino young men together and assume they are gang members. For Zimmerman, his unconscious bias met up with a deadly opportunistic accomplice—a lethal weapon.
We should all worry about the hate speech that crowds the airwaves and blogosphere but the real work in an increasingly diverse world is to call attention to the unconscious bias we harbor that places us all in jeopardy.