Trayvon Martin and Soul-Searching - Not Gonna Happen

Two things struck me about this message.

The first was the more widely quoted, If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin.  There is a photoshopped poster circulating on Facebook, Trayvon included in the Obama family photo.  It brought to mind immediately the young men I know who look like Trayvon.  I don't want to write their names, fearing, like O-lan from The Good Earth, that to speak such praise as they deserve would tempt the jealous gods to do them harm.

Their mothers are among my closest friends.  I can hardly speak of Trayvon Martin in their midst.  What it must mean to be the mother of a fine young African American man.

The second was a minor note, a hidden note, one that will be forgotten, was forgotten as soon as it was said, All of us have to do some soul-searching.

We Do Not Search Our Souls

Of all the words that this shooting has birthed, all the pundits and opinions, soul-searching is not among them.

We will talk about Trayvon.  We will talk of George.  Who were they, really?  What happened, really?  Which was afraid, really?  Which had reason to be afraid?  What was in their minds?

What is justice?  What are the consequences of these Stand and Whatever laws?  Which media are telling the biggest lies?  What is the state of race relations in the US?  What difference does it make that there is an African American in the Oval Office?  Where will it end?

When, for God's sake, will it end?

None of it soul-searching.  There is only one place to turn to search the soul.  There is only one soul one can search.  One's own.

It is a most uncomfortable process.  Ugly, usually.

We Want To Be Good, Even When What We Do Isn't

Now we all know what we want to find in our souls.  We all want to be good and fair and reasonable.  We all think we are, that we can tell the difference between a safe and unsafe situation, that our minds are capable of evaluating data, thinking through consequences, making responsible decisions.

Malcolm Gladwell says, Think again.  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking examines the processes by which we make rapid judgments based on slivers of information.  Some of these judgments are excellent.  Some are life-saving.  Some are tragically in error.  And sometimes we can train our brains to improve the quality of these judgments.

The chapter Seven Seconds in the Bronx tells the story of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guiana who was shot forty-one times by four plain-clothed police officers in the Bronx, when he reached for his wallet at his front door.  The officers were acquitted of charges, though the city of New York later paid civil damages to his family.

The incident inspired research conducted by Eugine Borgida and Susan Fiske, Beyond Common Sense.   The upshot, so to speak, is that when faced with an image of a white man or black man who is armed or is carrying a wallet, both white people and black people are more likely to shoot the black man more quickly than the white man, whether he is armed or not.

We Fear Faster Than We Believe

This is not about personal prejudice.  It is about how the brain works.  Our beliefs, our values and commitments lie in the frontal cortex, the most evolved part of the human brain.  It is also the slowest part, the last to come online in any situation, well after the limbic system.

Given any stimulus, the first question the brain addresses is Am I safe?  That is the amygdala talking.  The anterior cingulate cortex might get a word in edge-wise, This situation appears to conform to a pattern in which I was or wasn't safe in the past.

The frontal cortex can override the amygdala, My first response was a startle reflex.  But now I have more information.  I see that this is an exception to the pattern.  The person in front of me is friend, not foe.

The trick is to get accurate information into the frontal cortex, and then to train the brain when to wait for it to make its judgment.

Implicit Association Test (IAT)

Gladwell describes ongoing research on the gap between the judgments we make in a blink and what we believe when we have time to think.  Work done at several universities and known as Project Implicit uses a computer game to measure how we associate concepts and people.

There are several variations on this game, measuring attitudes toward various types of people.  The basic idea is this: You are presented with a series of words or pictures, and sort them by pressing either the left key [e] or the right key [i].  For example, you start with pictures of white people and black people.  Press left for one race, right for the other.  Then you sort words, good words, like happy, joy, peace, and bad words, like terror, evil, horrible, pressing one key for one set, another key for another set.  That's practice, getting you used to the mechanics of the test.

Then they mix it up, sometimes putting a word on the screen, sometimes a picture.  Press the left key for either white person or good and right key for black person or bad.  Then you do another set, left key for black person or good, right key for white person or bad.  I am oversimplifying the process.  There are several rounds.  But it's easy to do.  Try it here.

The results are more sophisticated than the test sounds.  What they are measuring in microseconds is your processing speed, your ability to make correct associations and refrain from making incorrect associations.

Growing Up in the United States of America

Most people in the US who take this test find it easier to associate white with good and black with bad than to be neutral or opposite in their associations.  This includes half the African Americans who take the test, and Gladwell himself, who is of mixed race.  It also includes people who, given time to think, do not endorse this view, those who disagree in their frontal cortices what the test has revealed about their limbic systems.  In fact, to take the test, you have to read through multiple warnings that you may not like the results.

I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree. Knowing this, I wish to proceed

I don't think it's about that South Pacific song, You Have to be Carefully Taught.  It's more like how you can't avoid the images, the crime shows, the news coverage, the continuous and multimedia reminders of 9/11 in every airport.

Associations are continually being made and our brains receive the programming.

Again, this is not about our thoughts.  Well, for some people, it's about their thoughts.  They allow themselves to be exposed to misinformation for long enough that they start to believe it.

And there I am.  I popped out of soul-searching mode and into they mode.

Well, I am in good company, aren't I.

I did several IATs several years ago, and have been repeating them for research on this blogpost.  The free range lab rat again.  The results, as Project Implicit promises, do not please me.  But this time I got some results that surprised me.  I will report on them later this week.

It's Holy Week, after all.  For Christians, this is a good week for soul-searching.  I invite you to try some of these tests yourself.  Comment on your findings, if you choose.  Use them as background for the next post.

etching, Woman With Dead Child by Kathe Kollwitz, 1903, in public domain
book jackets from
photos of Hatherton Canal in Staffordshire by Roger Kidd, Coal Creek Falls by Walter Siegmund, Glen Canyon by Sascha BrückJeff Kubina used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
flair from


  1. Hello Willa,
    This is a different topic, but, I have nominated you for "The Leibster Blog Award". I hope you will accept.
    To see all that is involved, visit me at and read all about it.
    Wendy Love

  2. Thanks for sharing that link with us, Wendy. I have heard of that award before but I never really knew what it was about.


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