'Stand Your Ground' Laws Are Racist, New Study Reveals

The controversial "Stand Your Ground" statute authorizes a person to use lethal force to defend his or her life against any threat. But a recent study provides new evidence on how it perpetuates racial bias.

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Dec 1 2015, 10:15pm

Photo by Ryan Vaarsi via Flickr

To George Zimmerman, a 17-year-old black kid in a dark hoodie was a threatening presence. Under Florida's Stand Your Ground statute, this was reason enough for him to shoot and kill Trayvon Martin in his family's neighborhood in Sanford, Florida in 2012.

Florida was the first state to pass a Stand Your Ground law in 2005. The controversial statute that's been enacted in 23 states across the US authorizes a person to use lethal force to defend his or her life against any threat (or perceived threat). But critics of the self-defense statute argue that it perpetuates racial bias—and a recent study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine has given law's detractors new evidence to prove it.

In "Race, law, and health: Examination of 'Stand Your Ground' and defendant convictions in Florida," researchers Nicole Ackermann, Melody S. Goodman, Keon Gilbert, Cassandra Arroyo-Johnson, and Marcello Pagano combed through data from a Tampa Bay Times investigation. They further examined the 204 cases in the state in which Stand Your Ground was cited as a defense against homicide or some other violent act and the results were, sadly, not surprising. The study found that in cases argued from 2005 to 2013, juries were twice as likely to convict the perpetrator of a crime against a white person than against a person of color. "These results are similar to pre-civil rights era statistics, with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim was white and less-rigorous enforcement with the victim is non-white," the researchers report.

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Take the lesser-known Stand Your Ground case of 69-year-old Trevor Dooley, a black man who claimed the statute as his defense for shooting an unarmed white man, 41-year-old David James, at a basketball court following an altercation. Although the Tampa Bay Times said this was a "case with many similarities" to Trayvon Martin's, the judge denied Dooley immunity and convicted him of manslaughter.

Behind this unequal application of the law, the study reveals, is implicit racism built on the effects of hundreds of years of explicit discrimination; Implicit Association Tests have consistently shown that, regardless of explicit preference, both black and white people associate whiteness with positive stimuli and blackness with negative stimuli.

Stand Your Ground laws are an example of "the constitutive presence of racial bias in our society by the determination of whose life is valued, demonstrated through the legal consequences for taking such a life," the study concludes. Or in other words, the question of whether #blacklivesmatter cannot be affirmed by an individual, only by our institutions and our laws. And self-defense doctrines like Stand Your Ground are akin to Jim Crow laws that viewed "white as the superior race and helped to legalize certain forms of homicide."

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James Jones, a psychologist at the University of Delaware, is a member of the National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws, which calls for other states to conduct similar studies such as this. In the American Medical Association's Monitor on Psychology he ultimately calls for the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws and other statues that provide far too much room for bias. "What we know from our research is that there is a lot of racial and ethnic bias in the judgment of threats," he writes. "It's important for us to show inherent bias in laws that use such a subjective criterion for self-defense."

Ackermann et al. underline the urgency of this endeavor in their study. "We have made a lot of progress since 1787, but this halving of the odds of being found guilty of a crime if the victim is non-white is an eerie reminder of the infamous three-fifths compromise."