Like many of you, I was surprised and deeply saddened by the July 13, 2013 jury verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. The neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot unarmed 17 year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012 was acquitted by a jury of both second-degree murder and manslaughter charges . Implicit in the verdict was the rejection of the Prosecution’s argument that Zimmerman racially profiled the young Mr. Martin and violated his civil rights.
In this post, it’s not my intention to elaborate on the lack of diversity of the jury or what I believe to be missteps by the Prosecution. Rather, I want to weigh in on the possible impact on the psychology of young black teenagers as they consider the case, particularly their attitude toward authority and the official institutions they represent. It boils down to this: An adult male is acquitted after killing an unarmed black male teenager. This must beg the question in the minds of young men across the country, what is the value of my life?
An Oppositional Attitude
What happens if young black men generalize the outcome of this case and internalize a belief that America and its official institutions (i.e., the criminal justice system, the job market, schools) are arrayed against them? How does a lifetime of slights as President Obama described in the wake of the verdict shape their identity or sense of self-worth when they know that they are frequently viewed as a threat? What happens when these perceptions are extended to their schools, their teachers, principals, professors, or college administrators?
Albert Bandura, who introduced a concept called self-efficacy (confidence that you can positively influence an outcome), says that confidence (self-efficacy) is hindered by what he calls a “perceived social constraint.” In other words, someone may stop trying to put more effort into improving themselves at a task (say, doing well in math or improving your free-throw shooting) because they perceive that there are forces against them that they can no longer influence. For instance, if a student believes that a teacher is prejudiced against him, or a girl thinks her gender hinders her math ability, then they will stop trying to improve.
Students in this “learned helplessness” state of mind internalize the belief that no amount of effort can be deployed to change their situation. They then throw up their hands and give up trying to be an academic star, and instead redirect their efforts in other areas, such as athletics or music, or being the class clown or school thug.
For many black males, particularly for those who’ve failed to make positive connections with teachers and school administrators, there are both real and perceived beliefs that the educational system is arrayed against them. If they attend a racially or ethnically diverse school, observing the racial and ethnic dissonance between students in the gifted and talented classes (few students of color) and the special education section (disproportionately represented with students of color) leads to inferences about discrimination that may or may not be true. They in turn place a perceived value on a task like economists use to determine whether or not something is a good investment. Here, the student makes a mental calculation as to whether or not putting in the work has benefit or cost. If the perceived benefit is greater than the perceived cost, then they’ll perform that task or invest in that activity. However, if the perceived cost is higher (such as the negative social standing associated with doing well), then they won’t do it.
Researchers have discovered that school and campus engagement increases the likelihood that a student will stay in college. Thus, if a student is unmotivated because he or she believes that the institution is unsupportive, then s/he’s less likely to engage academically and socially. This disengagement increases the likelihood that the student will take an alternative path out of college.
What About You?
First, it is important to note that there is always a benefit to working harder and studying, even if there are signals from the school or neighborhood culture that tell you otherwise. There are national studies that show a relationship between amount of time spent studying and grades that are earned. Hard work always pays, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.
Second, Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy and many have argued that the verdict was a travesty. Yet, not to honor his legacy by throwing up your hands is counterproductive both for you and the young people who may be looking to you to make sense of the case. Developing an oppositional attitude because you believe “the system” is against black males is both fatalistic and untrue. Challenging the stereotypes and other negative perceptions by being successful in school and in life is how to honor Trayvon.