There Won’t Be Unity on the Trayvon Martin Case Anytime Soon

The Trayvon Martin trial is going to be contentious, emotional, and covered relentlessly by media types who can’t get enough American-on-American rhetorical violence. It’s also going to be a prime opportunity for pundits and politicians to stand up and, eyes welling with tears, channel their inner Rodney King: “Can we all get along?” That is, can’t we set aside our differences and try to reach some sort of consensus?

But if the poll released last week—not to mention almost everything we know about social science—is true, then the likely answer is: No. No we can’t.

In the poll in question, which Reuters commissioned from Ipsos, 1,922 Americans were asked about the Trayvon Martin shooting. Not surprisingly, the story has reached almost total saturation at this point: Across every racial and political cut (other than independents, who trailed slightly), more than 9 in 10 Americans had heard about the case.

But that’s where the similarities end. Take the question of whether “Trayvon Martin is an innocent who was unjustly killed.” Sixty-five percent Democrats agree that Martin was innocent, while just 27 percent of Republicans feel that way (whenever I write “agree” or “disagree,” I’m referring to the totals from the “strongly” and “somewhat” agree/disagree categories). But if the political divide is a mile wide, we’re talking interstellar distances when we move on to race: 91 percent of blacks agree that Martin was innocent, while just 35 percent of whites do.

It’s not the case that the poll indicates that the vast majority of whites and Republicans are convinced that Martin somehow had it coming. In both cases, almost 50 percent of those polled said they “Neither agree nor disagree”—that is, aren’t sure—what happened that night.

But it’s still striking that different groups of people with the access to the exact same information—in theory at least—could come to such radically disparate conclusions about what that information implies. It suggests what social scientists have been telling us for a long time: we’re terrible at being “objective.” Rather, our judgements are weighed down by all sorts of racial and ideological and network biases. We seek out evidence that supports our views, ignore evidence that doesn’t, and work ourselves up into righteous lathers by reinforcing the beliefs we share with our friends and pointing to and laughing at the idiots on the other side.

Everyone thinks that they are looking at a given situation rationally or objectively, but this may be almost impossible given our cognitive architecture. I happen to think that all the available evidence suggests Martin was killed because of Zimmerman’s overzealousness. But I’m a student in a liberal-minded, public-service-oriented graduate program, so in certain senses my reaction was preordained. The second my friends and I heard about the shooting and saw the reaction from the right, certain mechanisms clicked into place in our head. Unarmed black teenager killed: check. Crazy, racially motivated reactions from conservatives who seemed hell-bent on painting Martin as a thug: check. We’d seen all of this far too many times before.

Conservatives reacted similarly, but in the opposite direction. They had a play of their own already rehearsed, but with the actors characterized differently, the script rewritten to support their own biases. I think they’re very, very wrong, and are being opportunistic and manipulative with respect to what little hard evidence is available.

But however right I feel I am, it’s a hard circle to square, to try to both acknowledge our biases and evaluate a situation “rationally.” I’d like to think that if evidence came out tomorrow that Martin had somehow instigated the shooting, I’d be willing to integrate it into my view of the case. But it wouldn’t be easy. My brain would be pushing against it every step of the way. Maybe that’s the closest we can come to common ground here—realizing that none of us have the equipment we need view such a tragic, emotionally wrenching case dispassionately.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.