In the outcry over the killing of Trayvon Martin, advocates and the media initially fit this case to our old modes of seeing race and racism in black/white terms. Then, as the details came out about George Zimmerman’s mixed/Peruvian heritage, and his father issued a letter calling George a “Spanish speaking minority with many black family members,” the initial story about this case was called into question. But Zimmerman’s race didn’t have to be a distraction. Here are three questions that people of color should ask themselves the next time two people of color are at the center of a media firestorm.
1. What are my own biases?
Recasting George Zimmerman as a Latino man does not make him any less capable of engaging in “racial profiling” than he was when identified as white, which forces people of color to grapple with our own racial biases and fears that we try to keep in our subconscious.
As many others have already noted, implicit biases are widespread; and the science—based on the Implicit Association Test that has been widely researched by academics—tells us that a majority of “minorities” (other than black people) show a noticeable implicit race bias against black people, relative to white people. So yes, many people of color have internalized biases about other communities of color (and even their own group), but this shouldn’t be Earth-shattering news. Juan Williams notoriously confessed in 2010 that he gets nervous when other passengers on the plane are wearing “Muslim garb.” This reprehensible (but too-widely shared) sentiment has gained renewed relevance in light of the recent murder of Shaima Al Awadi, which is getting too little media attention. And the 2006 killing of Sean Bell was another high-profile case (that’s back in the news) where the anti-black biases of people of color had tragic results. Bell was killed the morning before his wedding by NYPD officers who were black, Latino and white.
But the fact that biases are widespread should not lead communities of color to be suspicious and mistrust each other. Rush Limbaugh tried to use the killing of Trayvon Martin to fabricate black/brown tensions, going after the National Council of La Raza for outspokenly calling for justice in the case without regard for the fact that Zimmerman is half Latino. Solidarity across communities of color, and support from anti-racist whites is critical to all of our progress, and the implicit-bias science holds some important good news. In a 2006 study by Professors Anthony Greenwald and Linda Hamilton Krieger, Latinos were the minority group (other than blacks) most likely not to have an implicit bias favoring whites over blacks (at roughly 40 percent); and more than a quarter of whites did not have an implicit bias against blacks. And at the grassroots level, we’ve seen activists make the connection between Trayvon Martin and Shaima Al Awadi, with the “one million hijabs” Facebook page, that mirrors the “one million hoodies” marches that have taken place in various cities.
2. Am I thinking about race in current terms?
George Zimmerman’s racial/ethnic background exemplifies how much more complex “race” will be in the coming years. The demographic shifts predicting that people of color will be the numerical majority before the middle of the century make it very possible that we will have more and more media firestorms with racial undertones where all parties involved are people of color. Furthermore, Zimmerman’s mixed racial/ethnic background gives us a glimpse of how fungible the racial categories could become, as multiracial people (myself included) are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the U.S.
It is ironic that George Zimmerman’s white father has applied a sort of Latino “one-drop rule” to his son. The “one-drop rule” has a uniquely black history, since it was invented in the days of slavery so that white slave holders could keep their own offspring enslaved. Then in the 1990s, white parents of multiracial children shaped the politics of the multiracial movement to shake off the cultural legacy of the “one-drop rule” by demanding a separate mixed-race category (see Kim M. Williams’s book “Mark One or More”). But here in 2012, the senior Zimmerman was trying to have his son be seen only as a minority, a sort of post-racial doubling back.
This innovative use of the “one-drop rule” seems like a cynical strategy to protect George Zimmerman from charges of racism, and it’s at odds with research on how multiracial identity actually works for people like him. Sociologist Jennifer Lee has found that mixed Latino-white couples generally believe their kids will identify and be treated as “white,” and that people who are mixed Latino-white see their (non-white) ethnicities as “symbolic.” Despite the symbolic nature of the Zimmerman family’s “but George is Latino” defense, the media has now followed suit in applying this inventive one-drop rule to Zimmerman. Even on Soledad O’Brien’s CNN special, O’Brien—who is herself mixed Afro-Latina and white—only referred to Zimmerman as Hispanic.
As the media has created a new controversy over how to categorize Zimmerman’s ethnicity, some might assert that racial categories no longer hold any meaning, since they can be changed at will. But unlike George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s race was never in question. And it was the color of his skin that marked him for suspicion by Zimmerman that night, and surely had marked him before by other people who saw him in that gated community and wondered to themselves whether he really belonged (even if they never acted on those biases).
So when these intra-racial incidents catch fire, let’s not get distracted by how either party is categorized; but always pay attention to how the 21st century’s racial hierarchy may have more layers between black and white, but still has darker skin firmly at the bottom (read just about anything by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva to understand the complex hierarchy developing in the U.S.).
3. Am I being distracted from the structural problem?
George Zimmerman’s unconscious biases and his racial identity did not cause Trayvon Martin’s death. The gun he carried while volunteering his time as a neighborhood watch captain is what made the difference between a misunderstanding leading to insults and hurt feelings, and the death of an unarmed black teenager who was walking home from the store. But rather than talk about the laws in play in this case, we get mired in a debate over the motivation of individual actors.
The new black/brown terms of this case were a convenient distraction for conservatives (particularly the National Rifle Association) who would rather we not focus on how Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law fosters a vigilante mentality. The leaking of details about how Trayvon Martin was a normal (rather than perfect) teenager helped the Sanford Police shift the focus away from how their inaction the night of Trayvon’s death and showed a too-familiar disregard for the well-being of black men.
There are legitimate questions to raise about how gated communities—as modern-day, segregated enclaves—foster a racialized paranoia that George Zimmerman was caught up in. There’s a real discussion to have about the many ways that structural racism and criminal justice collide and conspire to rob Trayvon Martin of fair and just protection by the police. We must not lose sight of the structural factors at work in situations like this one.
Race in 21st Century U.S.A. is a paradoxical and evolving social construct. But when racially-loaded situations and conflicts arise, people of color must lead the way in developing a more nuanced view of how the disparate pieces connect.
Sean Thomas-Breitfeld is the Senior Field Trainer and Campaign Researcher at the Center for Community Change, whose mission is to build the power and capacity of low-income people to have a significant impact in improving their communities and the policies and institutions that affect their lives.