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Where race matters in the Trayvon Martin case, and where it doesn't

At a protest demanding justice for the killing of Trayvon Martin, March 19, 2012
At a protest demanding justice for the killing of Trayvon Martin, March 19, 2012
Photo by werthmedia/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Race has played a major role since the start in the case involving the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old boy who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer last month in Sanford, Florida. The teenager, who was visiting the community with his father, had been on his way back to a family friend's home after a quick trip to a convenience store; the shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, called police and described Trayvon as "real suspicious" before apparently pursuing him.

Many believe the shooting was triggered by racial profiling, especially after the release of a 911 tape earlier this month. Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, has yet to be arrested. But the racial discussion has grown broader in the last week, after Zimmerman’s father identified his son as Latino to a Florida newspaper.

Zimmerman, who is half Latino, had previously been identified in reports as "white," which as a racial category includes light-skinned Latinos but connotes something else. And while the revelation doesn't change anything in terms of the case, now being investigated by federal officials, it has drawn some interesting reactions and prompted bigger questions about how we assign and perceive race, how prejudice and profiling works, and whether the color or ethnicity of a profiler matters.

Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans, a former media ethics fellow with the Poynter Institute, has been addressing some of these questions in his column, "The Feed." In this Q&A, he shares some of the nuances that are being overlooked as the Martin case unfolds.

M-A: How has the role of race in this case evolved since the beginning?

Deggans: I don’t think the role of race has evolved very much. The controversy over this case was that a young black male who had no record and seemed to be just an average kid got shot to death by a guy who is not black. At first, people thought he was white. And then his father put out a statement explaining that he is part Hispanic, and we did a story later where we checked and found that on his driver's license and his voter registration, he registers as Hispanic.

But I don't think that had the effect that his father wanted of removing the idea that this might have been about race, particulary since the 911 call came out...He'd said he didn't really know the race of the kid when he started following him and confronted him. Then the 911 tapes came out, and it was obvious that he knew he was black.

I think it's been obvious that the kid had been racially profiled. The racial identity (of the shooter) may change, but I think there is a sense that here was a guy who was not black, who was friendly with the police, and who was allowed to kill an unarmed teenager.

M-A: There have been some interesting reactions to Zimmerman not quite fitting the description of what many people think of as "white," including from some non-Latino whites who had felt scapegoated. Can you explain this?

Deggans: Among some serious conservatives, there is this feeling that a lot of the racial complaints that black people or people of color have are illegitimate. I think when something like this happens, people on that side of the spectrum want to explain that it is not about race.

For them, seeing that the shooter was part Hispanic takes away that part about a white guy racially profiling a black guy. But anybody can racially profile anybody. Black cops have been accused of racially profiling black people.

Some of this happens when you have people who are not that used to thinking about racial issues or deconstructing racial issues talking about race. They make it about the most obvious things - that the guy was Hispanic and that the guy was black, and the dynamic must be different. But not really.

These conversations are difficult, because there is a lot of intensity and emotion involved here. I often find myself having to explain relatively simple things to people in the comments section because they don't really want to have an honest conversation, they want to delegitimize the claim of racism as much as possible. Also too, we just don't have a great vocabulary. Everyone uses the word "racism" right away. But people can act in prejudice without being bigots.

M-A: You wrote recently in your column of "a very simplistic understanding of racism." You wrote: "We still, too often, act like racism is a switch -- either you're Archie Bunker or David Duke and acting as a clear cut white supremacist, or you're not. But that's not how I think it works." How does this work?

Deggans: If you are alleging that some racial predujices affect a situation, you are immediately accusing someone of being a bigot. The first thing they say is that they are not a bigot, that no racial thing happened. The problem is that prejudice is very seductive, and people who are not bigots embrace prejudice. You don't have to be walking around like Archie Bunker to be suspicious of black males walking around your neighborhood. You don't have to be a white supremacist to indulge racism.

The media want to jump to what people are thinking: Is that person a bigot? No one is going to know. There is no way to look into his (Zimmerman's) head and know whether or not he is a bigot, but you can look at his actions and know if he acted on prejudice. That is what we are trying to figure out. People will say he is not a bigot, he is Hispanic. Let alone, that line of reasoning doesn't make sense. Even if the guy is not a bigot, he can still act in prejudice.

M-A: What does this case tell us about how we identify who is white and who isn't, and how we perceive and assign race and ethnicity?

Deggans: People don't care what race he (Zimmerman) is. They care about the race of the kid that got killed. The fact that he is half Hispanic would matter a lot to many people if this were Miami, because there is a lot of friction in Miami. But in this situation, it is more about how black people are targeted by law enforcement and people who are friendly with law enforcement in Sanford.

I've written before about how race is this combination of what your ethnic background is, what you self-declare as, what the world views you as and what you do. The two examples I use are Barack Obama, who is biracial but self-identifies as black, married a black woman, has dark-skinned kids and acts in a way where he self-identifies as black. He made himself part of the black community before he became president. Then there's Nicole Ritchie, who was adopted by a black couple. She has told interviewers that she self-identifies as black, but she does not look black, and is not involved with a black person, and doesn't particularly put herself in the black community at all. The world identifies her as a white girl.

So in Zimmerman's case, because his driver's license says he's Hispanic and his dad says he speaks Spanish and his voter registration says he's Hispanic, there is a sense that he self-identifies as Hispanic. But mainly, he is seen as white and the police see him as white....I think people are treating him as a white guy, like someone who is an ally of the police.

The thing about that situation in Sanford: There is a history of how black folks have been treated by the cops. (There has been an increase in crime and) there is a perception that young black males have been committing those crimes. So I think there is a very specific racial friction going on there that is much about how black people are being treated by the police in that town, and how young black men are treated by the police. People are looking at this and putting a big overarching theme to it, and we have this vision of black men that is shaped by all these larger forces. But much of what is happening there is much about how the cops treat young black men in that neighborhood.

The Miami Herald did a story about how during the (economic) downturn, people there were either selling their houses or renting to people with a lower economic component than those who used to live there. The sense is that the neighborhood is getting more diverse ethnically, and getting poorer and that crime is going up, so people are getting upset about it...and people in the neighborhood start making assumptions about people they see, fairly or not.

M-A: Media-wise, what can be done better? What discussion still needs to happen?

Deggans: Media-wise, we have to be careful about jumping to conclusions. We have to be careful about projecting too much onto people who are not talking, about projecting motives onto Zimmerman, projecting things onto him or his family, even projecting things onto the police, because they aren't commenting, either.

The police deserve a really tough look. I think their actions in the immediate aftermath of the shooting is why it took a while for the coverage to ramp up, and a good reason why people are more upset now. If they had been more incisive with Zimmerman and not so quick to take his story at face value, then everybody in the city could say "we did our best, we looked into this, we left no stone unturned." But when they didn’t seem to do it, now it looks like the city is covering for this guy, and that has turned into this huge thing.

Earlier this week, Deggans was among the guests discussing the case on KPCC's Patt Morrison Show. The audio can be downloaded here.