Trayvon Martin Case: Does Race Play a Role, Though Zimmerman's Not White?

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate about race since it was discovered that the 28-year-old George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, is not white but Hispanic...or so his family claims. Last week, Robert Zimmerman released his response to the increasingly racial climate surrounding his son’s actions, in a letter to the Orlando Sentinel: “George is a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends. He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.”

Read Robert Zimmerman’s Full Statement

This response concerns me on a number of levels. Why is the description so vague? Is George in fact Latino? If so, are we to believe then, that he can’t be racist because he’s not white? Is prejudice and discrimination restricted only to those who are direct European descendants?

Apparently, a lot of folks agree. On, William Bigalow points out, "CBS News, on its Crimesider website, immediately called Zimmerman a 'white neighborhood watch volunteer.' Martin’s parents accused the police of racism for not arresting Zimmerman. There’s only one problem: Zimmerman is Hispanic.”

New questions have taken over the debate. Could Zimmerman’s actions be motivated by race even though he’s not white? Could the police department’s lack of receptiveness to the case be racially motivated when two minorities are involved? Should Martin’s parents’ claim of a hate crime against their son now be silenced?

Some seem to think so.

Ultimately, racism is not as clearly definable as some might think and prejudice certainly knows no bounds. In reality, discrimination and even hate crimes aren’t uncommon between Black and Latino communities. In fact, there have been many of these cases, such as this case in Pascall, New York or this one in Moline, Illinois.

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Incidents like these speak to the fact that whites don’t have the market cornered on racial prejudice and hate crimes. The fact that so many of these cases exist is evidence enough to question Robert Zimmerman’s claim that his son is innocent because he’s Latino. Being a minority certainly doesn’t make one immune to prejudice or exempt from hate crime least it shouldn’t.

So, does race play a role? I have to believe it does, and here’s why.

Trayvon Martin wasn’t committing a crime when he was pursued. He wasn’t a known troublemaker or a burly six-foot-tall aggressor who could easily be taken as a threat.

He was a 140 lb teenager who was simply walking home in the rain. So why was he pursued, despite 911 dispatch instructing Zimmerman not to follow the boy? Why was he characterized as suspicious and perceived as threatening? I think these are important questions to consider, whether or not Zimmerman is Latino.

Then there is the issue of a young boy’s death that has not been fully investigated. Why wasn’t the investigation thoroughly conducted? Why was Trayvon Martin tested for drugs and alcohol following his death, while Zimmerman (the shooter) was not? How is it that Zimmerman’s prior conviction for assaulting a police officer in 2005 wasn’t discovered by the Sanford police department or the allegations of domestic violence from a former girlfriend?

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More likely than not, privilege played a large role in Zimmerman’s release. Both racial privilege and his connections within the criminal justice community may have played a role and it’s upsetting that these potential biases were overlooked by Sanford officials.

According to news reports and the Martins’ lawyer, Sanford police are still claiming a “fair and impartial investigation” was conducted. Now, how could that be, when a killer is walking free and the evidence clearly shows that Zimmerman pursued and killed an innocent teen?

With over 749,000 signatures on calling for Zimmerman’s prosecution, the outcry has been so strong that the federal government is now stepping in to investigate. This reaction alone ought to demonstrate to authorities that many others see the biases that Sanford police somehow missed. Let’s hope this investigation will actually make some show of impartiality and bring justice to the Martin family.

What do you think?  Was the investigation “fair and impartial”?  Was race a motivator?

Chantilly Patiño is a multicultural blogger and publisher of Multicultural Familia and Bicultural Mom, as well as the Managing Editor for New Latina. She is an activist for social change and writes avidly about feminism, racism and multicultural life.

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