SAN FRANCISCO—Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt initially chuckled at her 5-year-old son’s comment that a Black male passenger on their cross-country flight resembled the boy’s Stanford University law professor father.
“This man’s facial features and complexion were very different from those of my husband,” recalled Eberhardt, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford. “He was about four inches shorter, and he had long dreadlocks flowing down his back. My husband is bald.”
Because the passenger was the only Black man on the plane, Eberhardt dismissed her son’s mistake as mere age-appropriate confusion. But his next remark was much more alarming.
“He said he hoped the man would not rob the plane,” said Eberhardt, whose scholarly research focuses on racial biases. “I asked him why he would say such a thing, because his dad would never rob a plane.”
The boy agreed. When Eberhardt pressed him about what sparked the fearful remark about the stranger, her son’s expression turned sad. He replied, “I don’t know.”
Eberhardt shared the troubling anecdote last Friday during a public hearing examining so-called stand your ground laws. The hearing occurred during the six-day annual meeting of the American Bar Association (ABA). Individuals such as Eberhardt discussed reasons why the self-defense laws and doctrines, which currently exist in more than half the U.S. states, unnecessarily and disproportionately jeopardize the lives of people of color, especially Black men.
“In my lab, when we expose people to images of Black people, this seems to facilitate people’s ability to see weapons” in the hands of Blacks, even where they don’t exist, Eberhardt said, adding, “Stand your ground laws can easily render Blacks vulnerable.”
She said her research findings were similar between highly prejudiced people and people of low prejudice. “We live in so much racial stratification, even when there’s no racial animus.”
Because the participants in Eberhardt’s studies began thinking about crime at the mere sight of images of Black people, she said, “they were placing Black male faces under surveillance.”
This was true among not only college students in the studies, but also among police officers, the professor said.
She cited another study in which participants were shown pictures of a White man and Black man in a subway car, the White man holding a razor blade. But when later asked who had held the blade, many respondents mistakenly replied that it was the Black man, suggesting “the association between Blacks and crime was so strong that it can affect a person’s memory,” Eberhardt said.
The ABA created a national task force to review and analyze stand your ground laws in response to the shooting death in Florida last year of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager. Last month, a jury acquitted former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Martin’s death.
The task force has already convened public hearings in Dallas, Chicago, and Philadelphia, during which academicians, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other stakeholders have offered opinions about the utility of such laws, which do not require individuals to retreat from situations they perceive as dangerous but instead allows them to use deadly force.
The San Francisco hearing was the last in the series, and task force members plan to recommend what policy and viewpoint the ABA ought to adopt regarding these laws. Friday’s hearing drew speakers from academia, the local legal community and other areas of the country.
Civil rights attorney Eva Paterson of Oakland cited what she called “galling statistics.”
In states with stand your ground laws, 17 percent of incidents in which a White person fatally shot a Black person have been ruled “justified” homicides, Paterson said. But when a Black person fatally shot a White person in those states, it was deemed “justified” less than 2 percent of the time.
“Stand your ground encourages vigilante law because people can stand, shoot and murder without consequences,” she said. “This legalizes a form of lynching of Black people.”
National Bar Association president Patricia Rosier summarized the position of her organization, which is the country’s oldest and largest association of Black lawyers and judges.
“Stand your ground laws have to be repealed or amended,” Rosier said. “We view these laws as a license to kill because, if a person feels threatened, it’s totally subjective, so how do you quantify that threat?
“Furthermore,” continued Rosier, “it has never been considered that Trayvon Martin could have ever stood his ground.”
Retired judge Arthur L. Burnett Sr. said that tragedies such as the shooting of Martin caused him to revisit police encounters from his youth.
Once, as a restaurant busboy cleaning the facility at night, alone, he was confronted by gun-wielding police who suspected him of committing a break-in elsewhere. “Fortunately for me, the first place I was taken to was my supervisor’s home, where he vouched for me and said he almost wished I wasn’t going to college because he didn’t want to lose me,” Burnett recalled.
A second, frightening run-in occurred when, as a Howard University undergraduate, he and another fraternity pledge were taken into custody while they were participating in a scavenger hunt, Burnett said. The young men were in a car that Burnett’s friend had borrowed but was unable to provide proof of registration when the police requested it. “We were released after many hours in police custody,” Burnett said. “The point was, we weren’t oppositional when the police confronted us.”
In 1969, Burnett became the first African-American in the nation appointed U.S. magistrate. He served two stints within 13 years. He also was the first legal counsel of the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department.
In 1987, Burnett was appointed to the district’s Superior Court, where he served for 11 years before taking senior status and hearing cases part-time until fully retiring earlier this year. In academia, Burnett has taught law courses as adjunct faculty at Howard and Catholic universities. He is currently executive director of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition.
At the ABA hearing in San Francisco, Burnett said he doubted he would have lived long enough to have such a career had his demeanor been anything short of deferential and cooperative during those long-ago encounters with police.
So an incident such as Martin’s death causes Burnett to wonder, “How much human capital is lost when a person’s life is snuffed out?”