"White Hispanics," "Creepy-Ass Crackers," "Teenage Mammies," and "Suspicious A--holes who always get away" -- that is the vernacular of the George Zimmerman trial.
George Zimmerman faces life in jail as a jury considers second-degree murder charges against him for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. But thanks to the media he is already sentenced to life in the American public's mind as a racist.
NBC edited a tape of Zimmerman’s call to police as he was following Martin to make him appear to be focused on Martin’s race.
The New York Times has referred to him in unique racial terms as a “white Hispanic." The terminology was necessary to have the story fit into a well-worn news narrative throughout American history from the Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to Rodney King – the black victim of white racism. Hispanic people can be as racist as black or white people in a country with a deep history of racism. But, apparently for the Times, Zimmerman's whiteness was important. It fit their good versus evil tale of a white racist killing an innocent black man.
In June, before the trial started, a CNN poll asked Americans if they believed the murder charges against Zimmerman were true or false. Without any courtroom testimony or evidence, but based on the racially charged media coverage, 62 percent of Americans said the charges were “probably true” or “definitely true.”
My bet is that poll would have different results today. The trial has failed to prove Zimmerman acted with a “depraved mind” – as required for a second-degree murder conviction – or even with a racist mind. He certainly killed Martin. And the jury may decide he is guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter. But what we heard in the courtroom fits with an FBI report that found race was not a factor in Martin’s shooting death.
The strong public judgment of Zimmerman’s guilt in the poll reflected a racially weighted media telling of the story. Photos of a bloodied Zimmerman after the incident, Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and the police decision not to charge Zimmerman all got a dismissive glance from the press and contributed to public assumptions about Zimmerman before the trial.
Liberal and conservative news TV and radio have played to the racial theme, too. The left, notably Rev. Al Sharpton, have made the case a crusade for racial justice. The right-wing media, especially talk radio, has responded by making Zimmerman a hero. In fact, Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, created an online site that attracted more than $145,000 from people who somehow made Zimmerman into their champion, possibly their great white hero.
The national focus on race in this case hit a high point when Rachel Jeantel, a 19-year-old student, testified that she spoke with Martin just before he was killed. Jeantel, Martin’s friend, told the court that Martin complained that a “man was just watching him.” And Martin described this man, Jeantel said, as a “creepy, white, excuse my language, cracker --- creepy-ass cracker.”
Jeantel’s testimony set off a stupid debate, requiring total ignorance of slavery and legal segregation, about the equivalence of blacks using “cracker” to describe whites, versus whites using the word “nigger” to describe blacks.
And Jeantel’s physical appearance, as a dark, heavyset young woman, speaking with a Southern dialect as she gave the lawyers a lot of attitude with her curt answers, contributed to the racial view of the case.
She became the “teenage mammy,” in the words of a sociology professor quoted in the New York Times, caricatured for “not being smart and using these racial slurs and not being the best witness.”
And now the media, especially some conservative talk radio outlets, are fixated on the possibility of race riots if Zimmerman is acquitted. Meanwhile, Twitter and other social media sites are full of threats from angry black people to kill Zimmerman if he is not held accountable by a jury for killing Martin.
Martin, the 17-year-old, is dead. But he has not escaped the racial slander attached to this case. Zimmerman’s backers note that Martin had smoked marijuana – as if that is unusual among American teenagers. They seem delighted to find online messages in which he took on a rapper, street-thug persona and posed as a tough guy.
These are all caricatures of two real people caught in a tragedy.
Zimmerman should have listened to the 911 emergency dispatch operator who told him to stop following Martin.
Why did he have a gun if he was simply part of a neighborhood watch program?
He had no basis to suspect Martin of any crime. So why does he describe Martin as “suspicious” to police?
Why does he apparently lump Martin with people he describes as “these a--holes, they always get away.”
Why didn’t Martin just walk away from Zimmerman?
But Martin is dead. He can’t speak for himself and get beyond the box of racial stereotypes the media built for him.
Zimmerman is alive. He has chosen not to speak at his trial, and although the prosecution played an interview he did with Fox News' Sean Hannity, it is still no match for skipping an ideal chance to tell his story when everyone is listening in the courtroom and on television.
Now, no matter what the verdict, he is going to carry his box of racial stereotypes around until his death. His identity will always be as a want-to-be cop who trailed a black kid who was not doing anything wrong, got in a fight with him, pulled out a gun and killed him.
Ultimately, it is the job of the media to give straight, objective coverage of any story.
Whatever the final verdict on Zimmerman, the media is clearly guilty of playing on the most primitive racial divisions in our society to fuel racial animosity and boost ratings.
There are no winners here.