Trayvon Martin: Latino Silence over Zimmerman Draws Fire

The shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by a Latino man in Florida has provoked a national discussion about racism, ethnicity, and racial profiling in America—with the media referring to the shooter, George Zimmerman, as a "white Latino," a term that has been greeted with derision by some. 

Now critics are questioning why prominent Latino rights groups have remained on the sidelines of the discussion of race and the case.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh tore into the National Council of La Raza on Tuesday, criticizing the group’s president, Janet Murguia, for omitting Zimmerman’s ethnicity from her commentary on the incident.

Confusion Over Zimmerman's Race Highlights Changing Discourse of Race & Latinos

A caller had prompted the conversation wondering why the community hasn’t stood behind Zimmerman “seeing as how he is the victim, how he was assaulted.”

But advocates within the Latino community say these remarks are divisive and take away from the real issue.

“That has come out as part of the backlash, pitting people against one another,” said Lisa Navarette, a spokeswoman for La Raza. “We want a full and thorough investigation. If findings are consistent with what is being reported in the media then everybody who has played a role, regardless of race, should be held accountable.”

Leaders in the Latino community also say that as divisive as the remarks may be, they raise a issues about the way this country thinks about ethnic groups.

“We have paradigms in this country: Initially it was just black and white,” said Navarette. “This is complicated because the media tried to put it into that paradigm but it didn’t fit.”

Tweets indicate that a number of people are paying attention to his race --and questioning what a “White Latino” is. These discussions, while valid, show how little mainstream America knows about Latinos and minorities, experts say.

Does Race Play a Role Even Though George Zimmerman is not White?

“This is much more complex than simply saying this guy is Hispanic and we (Hispanics) have to defend Hispanics,” said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. “There is a whole question going on like, ‘Are Hispanics capable of being racist?' ‘Why are they calling him a white Hispanic?’... That shows a lack of understanding about the Latino community.”

Regardless of his ethnic background, social media vigilantes are creating their own justice system. Director Spike Lee re-tweeted an address believed to be George Zimmerman’s, but it it actually belongs to an elderly couple. That couple reported getting hate mail and death threats.

A “killzimmerman” twitter account was set up. It was formed in response to a tweet questioning the call for violence thusly: “We should just all get up and #killzimmerman ourselves; f--- the system. #AintNoJustice.”

Beyond what's in the police report, Zimmerman has yet to give his side of what happened the night of Feb. 26, when he called police to say he was following a "suspicious" person he believed was on drugs, while Martin, wearing a hooded sweat shirt, walked through the gated Sanford, Fla., town home community where Zimmerman lives.

Trayvon Martin Investigator Asked for Manslaughter Charge for Zimmerman

Police have not charged Zimmerman, who told them he shot Martin in self-defense, something considered justified homicide under Florida's "stand your ground law."

Some worry that messages such as these will exacerbate tensions and detract from the issues.

Marytza Sanz, who runs a non-profit organization in the Orlando area and works with La Raza, reached out to the Martin family immediately. When she did, she had no idea Zimmerman was a Latino. She reached out to assist on her group’s behalf because their child could just as easily have been Latino or any other race.

“It happens Zimmerman was a Latino, but that is not the issue here,” said Sanz. “This is a guy that did something wrong and we have to prosecute him and we have to do something as a country. We cannot accept this.”

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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