George Zimmerman Proves Latinos Can Be Racist, Too

When I first learned of the Trayvon Martin case, and saw George Zimmerman’s mug shot, it never crossed my mind that I was looking at a “white” man. I saw a face like my own staring back at me: Latino, of mixed heritage, just light enough to pass as white to someone who hasn’t spend a lifetime surrounded by mixed friends and family. What seemed obvious to me was perplexingly absent from the initial coverage characterizing Zimmerman simply as a bigoted white man. The reality was clearly more complicated.

Then, another, more troubling trend emerged: the backlash (mostly by white right-wing pundits) claiming that, because Zimmerman had some sort of Latino heritage, the attack wasn’t racist. As the story has developed, a clearer picture of Zimmerman has formed: he speaks Spanish and English, and has a white American father and a Peruvian mother. Apparently, having one minority parent absolves the child from any potential charges of prejudice. (At least, if you ask the Zimmerman family.)

Is “Latino” a Race?

The media coverage has made it clear that, as a society, we still aren’t clear on how to describe mixed-race individuals – especially Latinos. I’ve seen Zimmerman described as “white and Hispanic” (presumably a nod to his parents), “Latino,” “white Hispanic,” and some even stranger terminology. Some even contest a description of Zimmerman as anything but white, saying, “Hispanic is not a race.”

This is true, technically speaking. There are white people in Latin America – the descendants of the original European colonists from Spain and Portugal. There are some descendants of black slaves, especially in the Caribbean. There are also many, many people descended from the local indigenous cultures. When the US was settled, my European ancestors drove the natives from their land, leaving the many cultures they encountered devastated and dwindling. In Latin America, my ancestors were not necessarily better people. Colonization was still a brutal process that left many dead and attempted to destroy the local culture, religion, and customs.

But in Latin America, the natives weren’t driven from their homes. They were converted to Christianity, taught Spanish, and integrated into the society of the colonizers. The Spanish men married native women and had mixed children. In many countries, a complex hierarchy of racial categories rose up in response, with the first-generation Spanish emigrants on top, creoles (Spaniards born in America) below that, mestizos (those of mixed heritage) in the middle, and the natives and blacks at the bottom. Generations of intermarriage and racial mixing have made Latino identity complicated. Within Latin America, there is pervasive racism against blacks, natives, and mestizos with less European blood.

But most people in Latin America are anything but “white.” Racial relations south of the border tend to be messy and complicated due to the level of racial mixing. And because of the racial caste system in Mexico and elsewhere, most of the poor and disenfranchised have mostly-native backgrounds. These are the people desperate to immigrate to America for better opportunities. Most Latinos in the US cannot be accurately described as “white,” although most of us do have a healthy amount of European ancestry.

So: are Latinos a race, an ethnicity, or a culture? I’d argue a little of all three. Many Latinos who have been in the country for several generations don’t speak Spanish or have a meaningful connection to Latin American culture. But many of these people have visible and obvious indigenous heritage – short stature, brown skin, straight dark hair, brown eyes.  Categorically declaring these people “white” – as many people and organizations, including the US government, do – does a disservice to them, effectively erasing the racism based on physical appearance that many Latinos face in the US. Even those of mixed heritage, those who may not appear on first glance to be obviously Latino, like George Zimmerman.

Where do Latinos fit in Discussions of Racism?

 

Attempts to force Zimmerman into a “black versus white” model of racism are bound to fail. As a light-skinned Latino (and especially one without an obviously Hispanic last name), does Zimmerman experience privilege? Of course. If he had darker skin, an obvious Spanish accent, or did not have one white parent, I’m certain he would not have been allowed to walk free after Trayvon Martin’s death.

But I can tell you from personal experience: being able to “pass” as white doesn’t mean you aren’t subject to racist attitudes and discrimination. And the fact that Zimmerman’s victim was black is significant. If a light-skinned, English-speaking, mixed-race Latino man with one immigrant parent had killed a blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenager under the same circumstances, I suspect the outcome would have been very different.

But that wouldn’t have happened. A white teenager walking home isn’t automatically “suspicious.” Black men and boys are.

In Arizona, Zimmerman would have been the “suspicious” one. Border vigilantes in the state have repeatedly shown they have no respect for human life — indeed, that they barely believe undocumented immigrants (or anyone they suspect might be one) to be human at all. In a state with a massive illegal immigration problem and draconian, racist, anti-Latino laws, anyone who looks vaguely Hispanic can be racially profiled and targeted by the police without any evidence of a crime. Plenty of American citizens across the US have found themselves deported to Mexico by overzealous immigration officials. Unusually tan skin and dark hair, or even a Spanish last name, are enough to incriminate you. Arguing that Latinos are “white” and that these laws don’t constitute racial profiling is disingenuous and ignores the reality that most Latinos are mixed-race.

Racism Among Minority Groups

So much of the media coverage and right wing response to Zimmerman seems to assume that Latinos can’t be racist. Of course they can be. African-Americans can be racist, too. It’s not uncommon for members of one minority group to be prejudiced against other minorities. Being Black or Latino doesn’t change anything about the messages we receive, growing up in a racist society.

And for someone like Zimmerman, raised by a white father in a society which devalues black life and concerns, racist attitudes are not surprising. For those of us who can “pass” as white, finding a place to fit in can be challenging and depressing. Being only “half” Latino, Zimmerman might not have fit in with the local Latino population. Being only “half” white, he may have felt a need to prove himself by being harsher against black men and boys he saw as potential troublemakers.

Some people react to the prejudice by fighting it, even prejudice against groups to which they don’t belong. Others react to it by turning the tables — working to focus the vitriol of others to different minority groups. This is an especially difficult problem to navigate when you don’t belong exclusively to one well-defined racial or ethnic category, because there’s often less of a support network in place for dealing with issues of race.

George Zimmerman’s Racism

I strongly believe that Zimmerman was motivated by Trayvon Martin’s race when he stalked and murdered him for doing nothing more than walking home from the store. Arguments by his family that his close relationships with people of other races prove he’s not capable of prejudice are meaningless.

It’s easy to say “I have plenty of black friends.” But actions speak louder than words: when someone kills a person without provocation, in cold blood, after being told to stand down by police, on no other basis than their victim’s skin color, doesn’t that send a strong message about how they perceive the value of black life?

If that doesn’t qualify as “racism,” I don’t know what does. If George Zimmerman’s actions don’t show him to be a racist, then I don’t think anyone could qualify for the label.

When I look at George Zimmerman, I see a man of mixed race, a mestizo — not a white man. And I see someone familiar. Someone who could be my brother, my uncle, my cousin. And that, to me, makes his actions all the more inexcusable. Growing up in the murky divide between Latino and “white,” never quite one or the other, sometimes experiencing the benefit of passing and other times facing racist attitudes and discrimination…well, to be honest, it makes you resentful.

For me, my experiences have shown me how I could always be treated, if the world were fair. And I decided that everyone should be able to live free of racism all the time — not just some of the time, if you could pass well enough. In a fair world, in a just world, there should be no need to “pass” at all. And this has led me to a passion for social justice and anti-racist work. It seems that, despite undoubtedly facing discrimination as the child of a mixed-race marriage, Zimmerman learned the opposite lesson. For him, the most important thing was keeping people of other races in their place, no matter the cost.

Knowing that Zimmerman has been on the receiving end of the same suspicions and stereotypes he leveled against Martin is disturbing. I would have hoped someone who’d experienced what it’s like to live as a minority in America would have more empathy for others, and be able to give the benefit of the doubt. Instead, Zimmerman preferred to succumb to damaging stereotypes, and it cost the life of an innocent teen boy.

 

Related Stories:

Will The Latino Vote Decide The Next President?

Secretary Salazar Works to Uncover the American Latino Story

Update: Trayvon Martin Case Developments

Demand Justice For Trayvon Martin: Repeal “Stand Your Ground

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

258 comments

El Gigante
El Gigante3 years ago

DrC you don't seem to understand and it makes me laugh that the media and The Martin family (God bless there son) seem to be attacking g the SYG law. He was acquitted under self defense and not SYG. The instructions by the dispatcher not to follow the suspect was a suggestion however Zimmerman was well with in his right to follow. The other thing that people seem to not understand is legal stalking is a persist an action spanning multiple infractions of harassment. Zimmerman did not stalk anyone and according to his testimony he just wanted to find ou where he went. It is evident from the previous 911 call where he didn't get out o the car he mentions to the dispatcher "I don't want to ask him what he is doing because I don't want any problems" in which that case the suspect gets away before the police arrive. So there is evidence that he was already scared of confrentation. If this guy was so filled with hatred why didn't he kill the first guy who was later caught by the police and had one of the neighbors laptop. Please explain that to me?

El Gigante
El Gigante3 years ago

You are spot on about the whole Latino complex. I too have faced racial difficulties being light skinned Latino with a Spanish last name. But you seem to insist that Zimmerman also being light skinned Latino with a Jewish last name had something to prove to other Latinos by being aggressive to Blacks. You are wrong. I envy Zimmerman because Spanish was his first language. If he had to prove his Latino back ground all he had to do was open his mouth and just talk. Me I was stuck with a rare Spanish last name that left other Latinos assuming I was White regardless what I said. When it came to me and Blacks well that got even more complicated because they didn't like me because I was mexican. See where I grew up Blacks and Whites did not have tensions. But Mexicans would always start crap with Blacks or Mayates as they put it and vice versa. I give credit to you for painting a clear picture of the Latin race complex. But don't think for once you understand racism in America. I have been to several states and racism is different depending on where you live. As for Zimmerman he grew up in Manassas and the racism that seems to be going on here is US citizens and illegal immigrants. As a matter of fact PWC is the first place in America to start checking green cards before Arizona implemented the law.

Dr Clue
Dr Clue4 years ago

The only racial aspect that might seem to come into play here is that in Mr. Zimmerman's mind that a black person wearing a "hoodie" is grounds for suspicion and stalking.

If it really matters I'm white, and in an interracial relationship of 30+ years, and those in our circles come in just about every variety as to us it's more important what's behind your eyes than the skin you happen to ride in or the many other measures people use to set one apart.

Bette M.
Bette M.4 years ago

Never called them facts....they are indeed opinions.

You are a true blue bleeding heart if there ever was one.

Wherever you go there once was a forest.
Plant & protect Danny's trees for life.
Trees are the lungs of the earth.

Dr Clue
Dr Clue4 years ago

Having listened to the 911 call made by Mr. Zimmerman where at the time he was reporting what he claimed to be a suspicious character, it was clear from the call that at that point there was no threat to his person and no crime had occurred.

That being the case there was no "stand your ground" basis.

"Are you following him?" the dispatcher asks.
"Yeah," Zimmerman said.
"We don't need you to do that," the dispatcher says.

If anyone would have claim to actions under a "stand your ground" law it would have been Trayvon Martin who was being stalked by Mr. Zimmerman the self anointed community watch character.

Mr. Zimmerman later added embellishments to his story that just don't jive with his 911 call,
so it would seem that while we'll have to wait for the trial , Mr. Zimmerman by his own actions created the situation and is simply not entitled to a pass under the "stand your ground" law.

Bette M.
Bette M.4 years ago

No, not in a pickle just my personal opinion on them.
Here's another personal thought on blacks in general,
not all of them mind you just about 65% of them:
A gun in one hand & the bible in the other. One might
save them or the other will kill them or other people.
You can & will stick up for them all you want however
I'll respect those who can see beyond their blackness
and respect others with a color as well.

If there is any minority group I whole heartedly
sympathize with it is the Native American indian.
The NA are far worse off than 90% of blacks & yet
they do not cause even a third of the murders or
crimes that blacks do.

There are several topics that set people on fire
where few agree:
Race
Abortion
Politics
Global Warming
Ther's another, can't think of it.

Anyway....You are going to stick up for
these people until one sticks a gun in your back.
That may change you mind a bit. Then again
you may live where you see a black once in a
blue moon & that is why you will defend them until
your dying day just like I won't.

Wherever you go there once was a forest.
Plant & protect Danny's trees for life.
Trees are the lungs of the earth.

Bette M.
Bette M.4 years ago

No, not in a pickle just my personal opinion on them.
Here's another personal thought on blacks in general,
not all of them mind you just about 65% of them:
A gun in one hand & the bible in the other. One might
save them or the other will kill them or other people.
You can & will stick up for them all you want however
I'll respect those who can see beyond their blackness
and respect others with a color as well.

If there is any minority group I whole heartedly
sympathize with it is the Native American indian.
The NA are far worse off than 90% of blacks & yet
they do not cause even a third of the murders or
crimes that blacks do.

There are several topics that set people on fire
where few agree:
Race
Abortion
Politics
Global Warming
Ther's another, can't think of it.

Anyway....You are going to stick up for
these people until one sticks a gun in your back.
That may change you mind a bit. Then again
you may live where you see a black once in a
blue moon & that is why you will defend them until
your dying day just like I won't.

Wherever you go there once was a forest.
Plant & protect Danny's trees for life.
Trees are the lungs of the earth.

Beth K.
.4 years ago

Bette's a racist, no secret there.

Bette M.
Bette M.4 years ago

Well, what do you think of this:
Destructive Flash Mob at Walmart in Jacksonville Florida on Video!
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Flash mobs usually provide for some spontaneous light-hearted entertainment, but this was anything but. A flash mob recently overran ...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPq0O9wa4pQ

I'll say to my dying day blacks are hyper & over react to just about anything. Yes, Greeks & Italians get a bit wound up by have you ever seen a flash mob of white, Greeks or Italians do what was done in Fla.? And, this is not the first time this has happened either.
And this over reaction ties in very well with this Treyvan kid possibly jumping on GZ & that is why GZ shot the kid. And the kid was way taller, younger & faster than GZ to begin with.

Blacks have GZ targeted for a riot or get him sent up at all cost to satisfy that he or someone pays for Treyvan being shot.

Wherever you go there once was a forest.
Plant & protect Danny's trees for life.
Trees are the lungs of the earth.

Marie W.
Marie W.4 years ago

Ask Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit.. Black vs. Latino gangs are murdering each other and whites every day.