The George Zimmerman trial is underway. Like many trials these days, it seems set to have an iron grip on the country's collective attention. Many will follow it, and cable news will be sure to dissect it.
There are lots of reasons for this —a young teenage victim, gun laws center stage, and, looming large, the issue of race. As much as many wish it were otherwise, the image of a young African-American in a hoodie can't be separated from the events of that day or the facts of the case.
The differences between the barrio and ghetto, between being presumed to be illegal and being presumed to be a criminal, between being "brown" and being "black," are not all that great. And to complicate things even more; yes, there are black Hispanics.
- Rick Sanchez
Just last week, the judge ruled that Zimmerman's defense team could not introduce certain evidence about 17-year old Trayvon Martin, evidence such as social media posts and text messages where he calls himself a "gangsta" and asks another person if they "wanna share a .380," along with cell phone photos of a gun and marijuana plants.
The texts and the pictures conjure up the worst stereotype and image of African-Americans. But it is an image that, in this case, may be as much a part of who Martin was as the photos of him, with beaming smile, wearing his football uniform on the field.
On the surface, it seems that this information is at least somewhat relevant to the question of whether George Zimmerman could have been threatened by Martin.
And though the court won't allow this information that allows race to be introduced, race is inescapable. After all, the central question of the case is often presented in terms of race: was Trayvon Martin targeted because he was a black youth wearing a hoodie?
But framing the case in that way, focusing only on the race of the victim, is intellectually dishonest. It ignores half the equation, namely the race of the accused.
From his name alone, no one would guess that George Zimmerman is, in fact, a minority too —a member of a minority group that, like African-Americans, is also quite often the subject of negative stereotypes, a minority group considered law-breakers and often referred to as "illegal."
George Zimmerman is Hispanic.
The media coverage has been hyper-focused on Trayvon Martin's race, no doubt driven in large measure by black activists who descended upon central Florida (and made the case about race) and a news media hungry for controversy-fueled ratings. It is safe to assume that if Zimmerman were African-American, if this were black-on-black violence, Martin's hoodie and the stereotypes of African-American youth would be irrelevant. In fact, it's likely we would not have even heard about this case at all.
The news coverage has overwhelmingly been premised upon the assumption that this Latino holds the same images, buys into the same stereotypes, harbors the same beliefs, or has the same experiences as those that a white American might. As a result, the media has slanted how Zimmerman is presented (see, for example, NBC News' selectively edited version of Zimmerman's 911 call that was made to fit comfortably into a racial narrative). They have done their best to position this case as though it's white-on-black violence, with Zimmerman's ethnicity getting only a passing mention, casting him as a "racial profiling" vigilante with a knee-jerk reaction to African-Americans.
It speaks volumes on the media's general ignorance of, and lack of curiosity about, Latinos and the Latino experience in the United States. When was the last time you saw a Latino invited onto cable news to speak about this case?
While every individual is different and a product of his environment and circumstances, and while I don't know the details of George Zimmerman's life experiences, it is wrong to simply blindly assume that Zimmerman had or believed in a particular stereotype of African-Americans.
In fact, in our America, many Hispanics and African-Americans are probably more alike than we are different. The differences between the barrio and ghetto, between being presumed to be illegal and being presumed to be a criminal, between being "brown" and being "black," are not all that great. And to complicate things even more; yes, there are black Hispanics.
African-Americans and Hispanics even share a distrust of the police. It's an irrefutable and unfortunate fact, one that is inextricably tied to the experiences of these minorities over years, decades and even generations. And it could be argued that the Zimmerman case, a case of "minority-on-minority" violence, is far more common than we care to report.
This is by no means a defense of George Zimmerman. A jury will ultimately decide what actually happened in those final, fateful moments when the gun went off.
Rather, it is a call for us in the media, and for us as a country, to recognize that the issue of race does in fact pervade this case in a way that isn't only about the race of the victim.
This case is not black and white. Like our country, it is a mosaic of different colors, beliefs and experiences. And if we are to be honest with ourselves and fair to the accused, George Zimmerman's race can no more be ignored than Trayvon Martin's. Let's hope that the media coverage of this trial goes beyond salaciousness and sensationalism, and leads to a greater understanding not only of what it means to be African-American, but also what it means to be Latino in America and all the nuances and complexities that comes along with it.