The Curious Case of George Zimmerman’s Race

Progressive Latinos don't want anything to do with Trayvon Martin's killer, but that doesn't mean his acquittal has nothing to do with them.

By Julianne Hing Jul 22, 2013

Just about the only people interested in standing by George Zimmerman right now are avowed white supremacists, his family and Juror B37. But for Latinos, people of color and progressives he’s more than a problem. He’s a pariah. His acquittal highlights the reality that in a society built on white supremacy, non-black people of color can reap the benefits of anti-black racism, too. 

Think about how Zimmerman, who is white and Peruvian, exploited confusion about his racial identity. Depending on who you ask, he’s white, he’s Hispanic or he’s "white Hispanic." His family used that fluidity to sway public opinion.

Zimmerman’s Peruvian mother insisted on downplaying his Hispanic roots, his brother Robert told Fox News Latino recently. "Our family very deliberately left the injection of another racial element off the table," he said, adding that they wanted to "redirect the public’s understanding that there was no crime in self-defense, no matter the participants’ color."

At other times, the family traded on his Peruvian heritage. In an interview with Michel Martin on NPR’s Tell Me More, Robert claimed that the public was trying to turn his brother into "some kind of mythological racist monster, [so] they lighten his picture, they call him white, they call him a racist" when he "is actually a Hispanic non-racist person who acted in self-defense."

Zimmerman’s father took a similar tact writing in the Orlando Sentinel that "George is a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends." A few sentences later he added, "[A] black neighbor said that George was the only one, black or white, who came and welcomed her to the community, offering any assistance he could provide." In other words, George Zimmerman was a "minority" one minute and in the next he was the only white person kind enough to help out a black neighbor. 

For their part, conservatives have insisted that Latino groups claim Zimmerman as their own, a strategy designed to put advocates on the defensive. 

For example, both Rush Limbaugh and Fox News Latino accused Latino advocacy groups of intentional silence on the case, prompting National Council of La Raza (NCLR) to downplay Zimmerman’s heritage. "The fact that George Zimmerman is Latino is irrelevant to his actions," NCLR spokesperson Lisa Navarette told CNN. "We really regret people trying to use this to divide blacks and Latinos. … Initially it was a white guy who shot a black kid. Now they’ve split the difference."

To create distance some advocates have expressed confusion about Zimmerman’s heritage and dismissed the importance of it. "His background is not clear," Roberto Lovato, a cofounder of the online Latino advocacy organization told The Daily Caller  last year. "Is he Latino? Is he white? Is he both? Who knows? It’s irrelevant. What’s relevant are his actions, his racist comments, and his cold-blooded killing of an innocent young man."

Gustavo Arellano, editor in chief of OC Weekly and the syndicated columnist behind ¡Ask a Mexican! bristles at the idea that Latinos are responsible for explaining Zimmerman’s actions. "Latinos have acknowledged that he’s half-Peruvian and that makes him Latino. But no one is going out there to say, ‘He’s one of us,’ just like Muslims don’t go out and say, ‘Osama Bin Laden was one of us.’"

Tamara Nopper, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that popular confusion about Latino identity–an identity that can encompass nationality, skin color, language and heritage–has hampered straightforward cross-racial dialogue."We really have not developed a vocabulary around talking about Latinos as a racial group in terms of their relative relationship to blacks," Nopper says. 

Against this backdrop of inconsistency, naive political expectations and rhetorical manipulation it’s no surprise that Fox News Latino expressed bewilderment at the hundreds of mostly Latino protesters who took to the streets in East Los Angeles to protest the verdict. By denouncing Zimmerman’s acquittal those protesters were abandoning "one of their own," the website reported.

"They’re asking Latinos to be Latino supremacists at a time when they’re not," Arellano retorts. But just the same, he comments ruefully, "We finally know how know-nothings will accept Latinos–we have to kill an unarmed black teenager, then they’ll accept us."

Progressive Latinos aren’t going to take the bait, it’s clear. But if we were to be really honest with ourselves, Nopper says, "it would make us confront some really uncomfortable possibilities, that a Latino person could get away with murdering a black person, and get support from white people for doing so."