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Trayvon Martin & The Thomas Theorem

Reality is what we make it. However, what happens when people are deliberately misled or our prejudices and biases cloud our vision of reality? In this piece Nathan Palmer explores this idea and shows how two recent news events demonstrate the power of the Thomas Theorem.

Situations defined as real are real in their consequences. If you believed the hotel you were staying at was experiencing a gas leak and the only way to save your life was to break the sprinkler system with a porcelain toilet lid, would you do it?

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For these unsuspecting hotel guests, they truly believed there was a gas leak and that if they didn’t break the sprinkler heads people were going to die. They believed the gas leak was real and they believed the person on the phone was really the authorities. Clearly they were manipulated by pranksters, but we see the same type of reality construction everyday.

These prank calls illustrate two important sociological concepts, the social construction of reality and the Thomas Theorem. Sociologists argue that reality is whatever we all agree it is. The Thomas Theorem contends that situations defined as real are real in their consequences. If we believe our hotel needs us to break a window, we are likely to do it.

A far more horrific example of this theorem can be seen in the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. On the night of February 26th Martin was walking to his father’s house after purchasing a bag of skittles and an iced tea from a convenience store when George Zimmerman, a captain with the neighborhood watch program in the area, spotted him. Zimmerman called 911 from his truck and reported that a “real suspicious guy” was walking in his neighborhood. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something,” Zimmerman continued. At this point Zimmerman had not yet verbally interacted with Martin or even got out of his truck, but already he had decided Martin was dangerous. Around this time Trayvon Martin pulled up his dark gray hoodie and covered his head.

“He’s got his hand in his waistband,” Zimmerman told the operator as Martin walked toward his truck, “something’s wrong with him.” After another moment, Zimmerman said, “these [expletive] they always get away.” Zimmerman then got out of his car and started following Martin. Despite the 911 operator telling him not to chase Martin, Zimmerman continued.

What happened then is still being debated. All we know for certain is Zimmerman pulled out his gun, shot and killed Trayvon Martin that rainy night. As of this writing he has not been charged with a crime and is still in possession of the gun used in the killing. Zimmerman claimed it was self-defense and was released that night.

Protestors at Trayvon Martin Rally
Credit: David Shankbone

Martin’s killing and Zimmerman’s freedom have sparked a national outrage and while we wait to see what will ultimately happen to Zimmerman little is certain, except that Zimmerman acted based on the reality he had constructed for himself.

Despite never meeting Martin before, Zimmerman was certain that he was, “up to no good.” With one look Zimmerman felt compelled to call 911 because he knew Trayvon was one of the “[expletives]” that “always get away”. Zimmerman defined his situation as real (Martin was a dangerous criminal) and this distorted perception was real in it’s consequences.

Except, by all accounts Trayvon Martin wasn’t a criminal. He was a good kid who wanted some Skittles and an iced tea while he watched the NBA All Star Game. Zimmerman saw something suspicious, but there was no evidence to suggest his perception was accurate.

Reality is what we believe it to be. If we are mislead or if our bias, prejudice, or ignorance cloud our perception of reality the consequences can be profound. To be clear, the Thomas Theorem doesn’t excuse any behavior, but rather it only helps us understand how tragic events like this can occur.

Dig Deeper:

  1. The Thomas Theorem can help us understand how everyday aspects of our society are socially constructed. For instance the country you live in doesn’t actually exist (in the sense that there aren’t lines on the ground). It only exists in our minds. However, where you live has huge consequences on your life. Think of some other examples of everyday social constructions.
  2. Have you ever done something because you misunderstood the reality you were in? All of have at one point or another. Describe one experience in your life.
  3. What social factors could have preconditioned George Zimmerman to see Trayvon Martin in a stereotypical light? That is, where do we learn stereotypes about people of color and criminals.
  4. If reality is socially constructed, does that mean that nothing is real? How can we know to the best of our abilities that something is real? What would a social scientist say?