Does George Zimmerman’s Ethnicity Matter?

Zimmerman's seemingly mixed identity has sparked a critical, if difficult dialogue about the entrenched nature of institutional racism. Monica Novoa talks to South L.A. organizer Alberto Retana about racism and racial justice among Latinos.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Apr 11, 2012

Recently I have been visited by vivid memories from the 80s that played out during the years I attended Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, in what was known at the time as South Central Los Angeles. I’ve remembered the shock of the Challenger explosion in first grade and how nobody came to talk to us kids about the loss of teacher Christa McAuliffe, even after they hyped her up for weeks. I remember dancing to Cameo’s "Word-Up" in second grade in a pre- flash mob, flash-mob on the playground. 

And I remember Mrs. Kaiser’s third grade class, where after reciting the pledge of allegiance every day we’d practice our poem. Every week she would add a line, lengthening perhaps the longest poem any of us had ever tried to memorize in our eight years of life. Eventually, we could recite it all by memory. Soon after, we even worked up to singing it. For many years after that, I only knew it as "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a poem by James Weldon Johnson. 

I didn’t look into the poem any further; it would be a couple of decades before I’d Wikipedia and fact-check people mid-sentence. I was a budding nerd and very aware that my entire Salvadoran-civil-war-refugee, all-star family was cramming new language and patriotic information daily. So, I logged the poem in my memory under social studies trivia to be proud of having memorized, along with all the states and capitals and the Preamble. Fast-forward a decade later. I’m at a friend’s graduation at Cal State Northridge. It’s Black Graduation and everybody knows my third grade poem as the Black National Anthem. This is the first stanza, and the last line is my favorite for its spirit of perseverance:

Lift every voice and sing, till Earth and Heaven ring

Ring with the harmonies of liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise, high as the list’ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith

that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope

that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on ’till victory is won.

I think about the perseverance held by the people that composed and passed those words forward, and the perseverance many of us feel now as we continue to seek justice. 

As journalists, activists, pundits and everyday people weigh in on racial profiling and the glacial pace at which authorities have moved to arrest George Zimmerman for stalking, shooting and killing an unarmed Trayvon Martin, we have no choice but to persevere when it comes to facing race together. Even when the conversation about race in this country was primarily about black and white harmony and acceptance, there were difficulties. Now that the country is increasingly browner, the conversations require even more clarity.

As the public conversation about Trayvon Martin’s death has unfolded, many people have stumbled over a racial tripwire that George Zimmerman’s supporters set up. His supporters have defined his racial identity as white Hispanic; some have said he could not be racist because he has black and brown relatives and friends. And so, as a country, we’ve arrived at one of those moments in which we have to look at how a system of racial hierarchy that privileges straight, white men affects all of us.

I talked to Alberto Retana, executive vice president at the Community Coalition, a social justice organization in South Los Angeles that involves community residents in direct action campaigns to improve quality of life and transform socioeconomic conditions. They work on education, foster care and prison re-entry–and squarely focus on organizing both African American and Latino people who live in the neighborhood, bringing them together to organize for transformative change. Alberto has a skill for getting to the heart of fraught conversations on race.

How would you address comments that George Zimmerman is "Hispanic" and therefore can’t be racist? 

This is about how racism continues to impact African American men, and boys and men of color. When people raise the issue of Zimmerman being a "white Hispanic," to me that does not erase the fact that an African American male was targeted and killed. You could be a Latino or white or Asian and still wrongly target an African American male. That’s the issue that we’re looking at. It’s the attitudes and beliefs in our country, but also the institutions that don’t respond quickly enough when communities of color are afflicted. So we have a situation where a police chief is no longer in a position, where the state attorney general is no longer on the case and so this is also a reflection of a poor investigation on the part of our democracy, which isn’t working to the benefit of the Martin family.

Tell me more about that.

It’s clear to me that if the community had not raised the issue about this, it would go unnoticed like thousands of other acts of violence have gone unnoticed in this way. Being Latino does not excuse anyone or the country of being racist. It’s much deeper than just a black/white issue.

What’s frustrating to me about conservative white responses is the way in which they try to say this is not about racism at all, and then excuse themselves from the conversation. It’s a teachable moment for the entire country to learn about what institutional racism is, about how these attitudes and beliefs penetrate all of our communities and what we need to do as a country to transform that belief system but also the way in which our judicial system works, our criminal justice system works, and every other part of this.

I also think it’s important though that we not lose sight of the Martin family, they have a clear agenda around their child and it’s important that we stand behind that family and not make this just about everything else.

I read some comments from white people celebrating that this was not a "black and white thing," I read them as expressions of relief.

We need to point towards the fact that this is not about white people being victims. This is about a young black male who we know to have been killed by an armed adult and not getting the proper investigation needed from the beginning. And this adult is walking free. The Trayvon Martin case reminds us that we don’t live in a post-racial America. And while this is certainly about justice for Trayvon’s family, this is potentially justice for other families that may have been afflicted in the same way.

My family’s very mixed racially. A lot of Latino families are. If we talk about Latinos and race, there is a lot of racism in Latin America that puts people with brown skin, indigenous people, and black people at the bottom of that racial hierarchy, with white people at the top. Is this an opportunity to talk about that?

I think it’s an opportunity for us to talk about racism within the Latino community, but let’s not make any mistake that what took place in the case of Trayvon Martin, is an expression of racism in the United States and the way it manifests itself in our communities and in our country. We have to take a look at what’s happening within the U.S. and begin to dismantle these issues. The system we have here is what gets reinforced. As Latinos choose to assimilate, they’re assimilating into a dominant culture that pits us against African Americans in this country–that is a problem.

Rather than just assimilating into this dominant culture, we need to transform some of that to contribute to building a more racially just society. I don’t want to downplay what’s happened in Latin America, but I don’t want that to get in the way of discussing what’s happening here in the U.S. And it is important for Latino racial justice activists, and for the Latino community to speak out against racism, and speak out in support of Trayvon Martin’s family.

Whether you’re a black or white Latino, indigenous or mestizo, once you step into the U.S., you begin to get racialized by the way the U.S. defines whiteness because of the way in which the country operates. Even a white Latino at some point gets racialized in the United States, some also get privileges because of the way they look. There is a dominant race framework that everyone is fitting into, that society is defining. That’s the world that we live in.

I have a son who has a black mother and a Latino father. And culturally he may be raised with the traditions of Louisiana, Costa Rica and Mexico, but at the end of the day, he’s not gonna be judged by those cultural traditions, he’s going to be judged by what he looks like.

What you just said as a parent is very moving and real.

Men of color, particularly black men, but Latino men as well, are being very reflective and asking, "How do we teach our children, our young men to navigate situations in which they’re being racially profiled, whether it’s by a police officer, neighborhood resident, teacher?" Obviously the stakes get higher depending upon who that person is, and those stakes may mean losing your life. It’s made me reflective about, What do I tell him? How do I raise somebody to not always be living in fear about what might happen to him? We can’t live in a society where if you’re black or brown you have to go out in a suit everyday, just to not be judged. That’s backwards. That’s not the world I want to live in, that’s not the world I want to teach my son to live in. That’s an injustice that we can’t erase just by changing the law. We have to transform society.