You would have to be stone cold to not be aware of and affected by the events surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. As the trial ended, it has brought to the forefront many of the issues most Americans often ignore. We are dealing with the fact that racism is real. That the racism we most need to address is the structural racism of our society. And, that despite the election of a President who identifies as black, we are still not a post-racial society.
Today on the NPR program, Morning Edition, social science reporter Shankar Vedantam spoke about studies that have worked to get to the heart of racism. The link to the story is here. In it, Vedantam talks about the issue of "racism without racists." This is the conundrum that despite the fact almost no one admits to being a racist or harboring racist feelings, we still often act in ways that are racist. There have been hundreds of these studies over the past decade or so. The study Vedantam highlights is one where doctors provided worse medical care for patients they thought were African American than for patients they thought were white. Provided the results of the study, the doctors were horrified. It was not as if they meant to make race a factor in the care they provided.
This same phenomenon, known as implicit bias, is at play in almost all of our interactions. All of us have the bias regardless of race, gender, or any other factor. All of us have the bias in the same direction – favoring whites, males, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups. However, we all have it to different degrees. Those who work to overcome their implicit bias can reduce its impact on our actions.
Implicit bias could explain a lot of the "whys" that surround Trayvon Martin's death. It certainly is part of the explanation as to why Zimmerman followed Martin. Whether or not you think he was purposely being racist, there is no doubt that he was implicitly racist to suspect, follow, and confront an unarmed teenager. I think it is part of the explanation as to why Zimmerman made a decision to shoot his gun as well. My gut tells me he would not have shot a gun at a white teenager in the same situation. And, I think there is an argument that implicit bias is involved in why the Florida legislature passed a stand your ground law in the first place. Statistics on who is found not guilty using stand your ground defenses support that notion. Whites are 350% more likely than blacks to be found not guilty using the defense.
Despite the fact that all of us have an implicit bias, we are not doomed to a racist society. Implicit bias has been here forever, certainly for the entire history of the United States. Yet, our society has become more equal and equitable over time. Dr. King was right when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." However, it is too often that justice happens only when we face a crisis. (A textbook example here is the passage of the Fair Housing Act, which occurred one week after the assassination of Dr. King.) The solutions are often contentious and sometimes divisive. They happen long after they are overdue.
There is a better, less disruptive, and more inclusive way to bend toward justice. We can alleviate implicit bias. There are essentially two accepted ways to do this. The first is to promote greater interaction between people of different races. The second is to be intentional about equality, equity, and inclusion. By reducing implicit bias, we change the structure of our societal interactions in ways that make society fairer and improve our interpersonal interactions as well.
For the most part, a strategy such as this is simply a theory or dream. However, we in Oak Park have implemented this strategy for more than four decades now. We both promote greater interaction and act intentionally by encouraging a diverse and integrated housing market. At the heart of it all has been the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. Over the years, Village Hall, our school systems, the real estate community, our park district and township, and others have joined in the effort. As a result, we have created a community that has at its core a value in diversity, a concern for social justice, and an aspiration to be equitable.
Oak Park is a community unlike any other. We have been more successful in achieving a diverse, integrated, and inclusive community than anywhere else in the nation. Just as important, we are a community that knows we still have work to do to sustain what we have created and improve upon it. We have created a community we can be proud of. We have created a community that is closer to the American ideal than anywhere else. We have created a community that should be a model for others across the nation. We have a created a community that works to diminish its implicit bias.
Yes, right now, as we talk about race, equity, justice, and America we should be talking about Oak Park.