By Najan Farley
Trayvon Martin’s shooting along with the beating death of Shaima Alawadi has elevated the serious issues of race and religion in the national discourse and consciousness. Although there are many who still debate the influence of race in the Trayvon Martin shooting, I am firmly of the opinion that race and gender were the most important factors in George Zimmerman’s decision to follow Martin and everything that occurred as a result, including Martin’s death. Similarly, Alawadi’s death occurred as a result of the combination of her identities of race, religion and gender. While Martin’s death has created a movement, Alawadi’s death, while widely publicized, has not been discussed with the same fervor. Perhaps because her murderer is still at large and there is no doubt that he or she will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
On Meet the Press this past Sunday, during the journalists’ roundtable, the discussion focused on implicit bias and the ways that people perceive African Americans and other minority groups. However, one point that I disagreed with is how disconnected the discussion was from the reality of perception. Implicit bias does not just naturally occur; the test is not just measuring ideas that came out of thin air. The perceptions that people have of African-American men or Muslim women are based, primarily, on images that they have seen or things that they have heard. I would argue that many of these perceptions come from the erroneous images that are propagated in the media. The media’s constant images on the news, in movies and on television shows contribute to the perception that black men are “suspicious” or “dangerous” or that Muslim women in hijab may be terrorists.
Outside of media bias, I also think that law enforcement priorities and programs also influence the perception of certain types of people as “criminal.” For example, what influence has the publicizing of widespread New York Police Department surveillance had on the perception that Muslims and Arabs are in danger of falling into terrorist plots? I would argue that law enforcement’s over-policing of minority neighborhoods, in particular African-American or inner-city neighborhoods also contributes to these perceptions. Although law enforcement is fundamentally different from the types of vigilantes and alleged criminals in these cases, I would argue that law enforcement and its influence also has a role to play in understanding these tragedies. I believe that President Obama’s election and the changing demographics of our country have made this a very important time for progress on the issue of race. Hopefully the connection between these two incidents is not lost and the possibly burgeoning movement addresses the issues underlying the tragedies and begins moving towards greater understanding between all Americans.