Race has played an increasingly large role 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 man who shot him, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, called police and described Trayvon as “real suspicious” before apparently pursuing him.
Many believe the incident to have been 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 had previously been identified as “white.” While the revelation doesn’t change anything in terms of the case, now being investigated by the federal government, it has prompted some interesting reactions and triggered 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.
MULTI-AMERICAN: 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 his driver’s license and his photo 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 (sic) since the 911 call came out…He’d said he didn’t really 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 when 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.