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Hispanics and the Zimmerman Narrative

Four days into the post-Zimmerman trial verdict era—which many in the media have already dubbed the post-post racial era of American history—a small but interesting thing happened that tells us a lot about the way the narrative of this event is being crafted by the media. Politico’s Dylan Byers gets credit for noticing a curious detail about President Obama’s much talked-about interviews with Hispanic television networks. The focus of the appearances was the discussion of immigration reform. The main point was the White House’s not-so-subtle hint to Republicans that though the president had taken a low profile on the issue in order to not sabotage bipartisan efforts to pass a Senate compromise, Democrats were poised to use the failure of the House to pass a bill as a cudgel to attack Republicans in the future. But the most fascinating element of the president’s Hispanic outreach was the question that he wasn’t asked. As Byers points out, on a day when the country was transfixed by the debate over the acquittal of George Zimmerman on a charge of murdering Trayvon Martin, no one from Telemundo or Univision even mentioned the case.

In and of itself it’s curious that any presidential interview this week would not contain at least one question about the case. But even Byers didn’t mention the irony here. While the prevailing narrative of the case has been to portray the tragic death of Martin as a symbol if not a practical example of white racism against African-Americans, Zimmerman isn’t white. He’s Hispanic. So it is telling that not only have none of the leading lights of the Latino media claimed him as a member of their community, but in doing so have consciously abstained from dealing with the issue of race relations in America that has become the primary topic of political discussion since Saturday night. At least as far as these interviews were concerned, the Hispanic media seems determined to do nothing to alter the prevailing narrative in which Zimmerman is stripped of his own identity as a minority in order to make the point about racist America in a way that allows the left to wave the bloody banner of Jim Crow unimpeded by concern for the sensitivities of Hispanics.

Let’s concede that the Hispanic journalists are entitled to determine their own priorities and that immigration reform and the status of illegals is not only the topic they are most interested in but also the one their viewers care most about. They are also within their rights to deplore Zimmerman’s actions and to reject his acquittal if they think it was unjust. But the complete absence of interest on their part in bringing up the case this week in what was a unique opportunity to get the president speak to the issue provides us with a fascinating commentary on their frame of reference.

Though race was not part of the actual trial that hinged on the facts of the case and the details of the confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin, since the verdict was handed down the discussion in the country about it has focused almost entirely on identity politics and race. Martin has been transformed in much of this discussion from a youth with a mixed record who got into a fight with an armed man into a martyr who was murdered because he was black. But in order to make that narrative persuasive, Zimmerman must be viewed as a “creepy ass cracker”—Martin’s description of Zimmerman according to Rachel Jeantel—and not the son of a woman from South America whose Hispanic appearance doesn’t exactly make him a likely recruit for the Ku Klux Klan. But in order to really think of Zimmerman that way, we must forget his origins and his looks and focus only on his German-sounding last name.

One needn’t agree with the verdict in order to understand that stripping Zimmerman of his Hispanic identity and making him an honorary member of the white supremacist conspiracy against minorities has been an integral element in the process by which he has been demonized and the case has been inflated into the new paradigm of American racism. Those who only concentrated on the facts of the case rather than the politicized agitation that accompanied it—a group that includes the jurors that acquitted Zimmerman—found it to be a complex and confusing incident that told us little, if anything, about racism in America. But eliminating the defendant’s background makes it easier to think of it as a morality play about racism.

Perhaps it’s understandable that Hispanic journalists wouldn’t want to risk upsetting their liberal colleagues by disrupting this rhetorical formulation by pointing out Zimmerman’s background or even raising questions about assumptions about race. But their failure to do so is playing a part in perpetuating a distorted discussion that has done more to obscure the truth about race in America than to shed light on it.


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