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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the "Hispanic" Race

The Trayvon Martin case has justifiably generated an enormous volume of commentary.  One of the most interesting aspects of this commentary is the difficulty people have had in grappling with how to categorize George Zimmerman, the shooter.  At first, he was described merely as "white."  This allowed the case fit nicely into the paradigm of Black-White race relations.  A black teenager is shot and killed by a gun-toting, white vigilante, and the white police chief leading a police force with a troubled racial past declines to recommend charges against the shooter.  

Then it came out that Zimmerman's mother is Latina (she's Peruvian).  His photo (at least to me) reveals a man who looks mestizo.  And yet commentators are reluctant to give up the white label.  In an article this morning, the New York Times describes him as a "white Hispanic."  James Fallows says the case "involves the shooting of a young black man by a young white man, and the failure of the white-run Southern police department to take any action against the killer."  Others emphasize Zimmerman's white half and suggest that it's the half that matters more.  These efforts show how confusing the Latino category is to traditional American racial tropes, particularly when we are talking about a case like this one that pushes all of our pre-civil rights buttons.

For my part, I think the fact that Zimmerman is a Latino (or half Latino or half white or mostly white looking, etc.) is not essential to the racial analysis of this case. First off, the idea that his being a Latino somehow undermines the possibility that he was motivated by racial bias is silly.  Anti-black racism is alive and well within the Latino community, in both the classic American sense of that term as animus directed against African-Americans and a more nuanced skin-color bias among Latinos themselves.  Of course, this story would be more complicated than the traditional white-black dichotomy, and so media commentary has largely stuck with the more familiar categories.  Second, in my mind the more pressing (because more systemic) scandal in the case is the law enforcement reaction, which plainly treated the killing of a young black man as something to take less than seriously.  There are so many holes in the police department investigation, it is hard to know where to begin.  But easily the most damning is the police department's failure to discover (or, if they knew about it, follow up on) Martin's phone call with his girlfriend while he was being followed.  And the racial dimensions of this police malpractice do not really turn upon Zimmerman's race or his possible racial motives for his actions.  Police failure to investigate thoroughly the killing of young black men is a racial scandal even if the perpetrator of the crime is black, as he most often is.

I get that Zimmerman's supposed "whiteness" is part of what sells this story as a cause celebre for a great many people.  And I'm not trying to insert myself into a debate about how people ought to be describing Zimmerman.  As a Latino, what I find interesting about the case is what it reveals about the resilience of the black-white racial paradigm in our culture.  Several decades into the explosion of the Latino population, and we are still trying to figure out what to do with Latinos and, for the most part, still struggling to shoe-horn Latino racial identity into those two boxes.

Posted by Eduardo Penalver on March 22, 2012 at 11:03 PM | Permalink


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Part of identiying George Zimmerman as "white" is his name, which is clearly not a latino name. This is part of identification and self-identification. Also, at issue is class. What class in Peru did George's mother come from? All of these things mix together.

Posted by: Meredith | Mar 23, 2012 9:31:30 PM

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