Racial bias and 'stand your ground' laws: what the data show
Data from states with 'stand your ground' laws raise questions about how notions of self-defense are evolving and whether, under such laws, race-based fears are more likely to influence juries.
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Yet it is that perception, more than the reality, that makes stand-your-ground laws vulnerable to racial bias, say others. The fact that jurors deemed Zimmerman justified in standing his ground – but not Trayvon – points to subtle prejudices, they suggest.Skip to next paragraph
"I don't think they walked past that issue. I think they walked right up to it, and said, 'Yes, we call this reasonable,' " says Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California and author of "Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America."
'We've got to understand what 'reasonable' means in the context of a great fear of crime, of great fear of violence, and of great fear of black crime and violence," he says. "And you have it again and again: juries saying it's reasonable to take drastic measures to avert drastic harm from black males."
"Encrypted attitudes" about race have a significant effect on the justice system, and stand-your-ground laws give them greater latitude, he adds. "There's a lot of unconscious biases when it comes to race," argues Mr. Armour. "And if you know that, why would you want to create laws that are going to increase the opportunities for unconscious biases to burden and harm a minority, like blacks?"
Such biases can be what Armour calls "statistically justifiable," given higher rates of violent crime and murder in the black community. The problem is that what sociologist Robert Cottrol calls "microcultures of violence" in the poor, black community falsely paint a broader swath of innocent young blacks as criminals.
These impressions have shaped many African-Americans' views about law enforcement, and so colored their views of how stand your ground was employed in the Zimmerman case.
"When you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that, that doesn't go away," President Obama said in an unscripted post-verdict statement.
While only 30 percent of white respondents to a Pew poll said they were dissatisfied with the verdict, 86 percent of blacks said they had problems with the jury's decision. In the wake of the verdict, both Mr. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder called for states to roll back stand-your-ground laws, with Obama saying they "encourage ... confrontations and tragedies."
It's been widely pointed out that the Zimmerman trial was not a stand-your-ground case. But for all intents and purposes, it was. While it's true that Zimmerman chose not to request an immunity hearing under the stand-your-ground law, he still has that option if there is a civil lawsuit. If he had requested that hearing, the law would have required he take the stand and explain his actions, which the defense in this case did not want to do.
Moreover, in her instructions to the jury, Judge Debra Nelson told jurors that Zimmerman, as long as he wasn't himself committing a crime, "had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force ... if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself...."