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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

I’m here to explain why George Zimmerman is white.

This seems necessary given the confusion and anger with which some readers responded to my use of that word last week in this space to describe the man who shot an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin to death last month in Sanford, Fla. One person wrote: “Mr. Zimmerman was Hispanic not White plez do your homework before writing your column!!!!”

But it is they who are wrong. There are two reasons. The short one is this:

“Hispanic” is not a race, but an ethnicity. As the U.S. Census Bureau puts it in its 2010 Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin, “People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.”

The long reason begins with an understanding that the word in question — race — is a term both meaningful and yet, profoundly meaningless. It is meaningful in the sense that it provides a tool for tribalism and a means by which to organize our biases, fears, observations, social challenges and sundry cultural products. It is meaningless in the sense that, well … it has no meaning, that there exists no definition of “black” or “white” that carries any degree of scientific precision.

We are taught to believe the opposite, that “black” and “white” are self-evident and immutable. But I invite you to look up Walter White, the blond, blue-eyed “Negro” who once led the NAACP, or Gregory Howard Williams, the university president who didn’t even know he was black until he was 10 years old. Dig up the old Jet magazine story about a woman who gave birth to twins — one “black,” one “white.” And then think again. Race is a fraud, a cruel and stupid fraud.

The people who came here from Europe did not automatically consider themselves “white.” They identified as Irish, Hungarian, Italian, Jewish, Armenian. As David R. Roediger observes in his book, “Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White,” they were emphatically taught that “white” was the identity that conferred status and privilege and that it was defined by distance from, and antipathy toward, black. They were advised to avoid being friendly with blacks or else put their whiteness at risk.

Nor did Africans kidnapped into slavery think of themselves as “black.” They were Mandinka, Fulani, Mende, Songhay, Wolof. “Black” was something imposed upon them as justification for slavery and other means of exploitation. As one historian puts it: Africans did not become slaves because they were black; they became black because they were enslaved.

Well into the 20th century, America recognized dozens of “races.” In that America, people we now regard as white — the Irishman, Conan O’Brien; the Armenian, Andre Agassi; the Jew, Jerry Seinfeld — could not have taken for granted that they would be seen that way. People like this had to become white, had to earn whiteness, a feat African-Americans have found impossible to duplicate, no matter how many harsh chemicals they use on their hair and skin.

White, then, is not simply color, but privilege — not necessarily in the sense of wealth, but rather in the sense of having one’s personhood and individuality respected, a privilege so basic I doubt it registers with many whites as privilege at all. We’re talking about the privilege of being seen, of having your worth presumed, of receiving the benefit of the doubt and some human compassion, of being treated as if you matter.

Consider that; then consider the fair-skinned Hispanic man, George Zimmerman, who evidently stalked and killed an unarmed kid he wrongly thought was up to no good, yet was not arrested, nor even initially investigated. He said it was self-defense. Police took him at his word and sent him on his way.

Folks, that’s not just white. It’s blinding.

 

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at [email protected].)

 

(c) 2012 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

  • rustacus21

    B/c Americans are still fearful of debates re: race, we simply pretend all the problems (which STILL remain) are figments of overactive imaginations. Only in Mr. Zimmermans’ imagination was there a ‘threat’ against any 1, by an innocent school boy, minding his own business, on a public street, in 2012 America. Similarly, it is only in the utterly, absolutely & unmistakably CRAZED imaginations of conservatives, such as Harold Simmons, a billionaire, who’s sparing no expense to defeat, who he, among all the conservative candidate field, believe is the most DANGEROUS American (President Obama) alive!? B/c, in their view, what it means, ‘reducing the reach of government’… & as an industrialist, in a business that MUST be regulated (TX has the highest rates of industry-chemical related pollution – per community in the nation, which xplains Simmons’ obsession w/implementing tort reform measures, making it easier for his companies to pollute, w/out accountability – w/assistance from his legislative puppets he’s allocating millions to, this campaign cycle), observations of ‘treat’, as w/Zimmerman, hinge on color, culture & ideology. In both cases, these men, consciously or otherwise, enforce the racist codes in existence since America became, but are proving yet again, it is far past time that they be retired once & for all…

  • peteserb

    Would the National Memo print a story without innuendo? I doubt it. You state that Zimmerman stalked and killed Trayvon Martin . When you know full well there is another side to the story. But then the Memo might become a news agency rather than an arm of Liberalism. Stop printing half of a story. Give both views. It’s always easy to demagogue an issue, but it’s difficult to tell the truth, when the truth goes against your bias.

    • darryl45

      Regardless of what you think, if the young man was white, and had on a hoodie he should not be shot down like an animal in the street. There are no two sides to this, Zimmerman was told by the police dispatch to stay in his car, but he did not and that leaves me to believe that he wanted to kill a black child that night. The other thing is that based on his words of every one of them gets away leaves me to believe again he wanted to kill a black child. So what is your problem peteserb

    • darryl45

      Regardless of what you think, if the young man was white, and had on a hoodie he should not be shot down like an animal in the street. There are no two sides to this, Zimmerman was told by the police dispatch to stay in his car, but he did not and that leaves me to believe that he wanted to kill a black child that night. The other thing is that based on his words of every one of them gets away leaves me to believe again he wanted to kill a black child. So what is your problem peteserb

    • peteserb

      I’m afraid I’m being misinterpreted here. I merely said the memo should not condemn someone on heresay. Wait until the investigation is complete and see the outcome. If the crime and skin colors were reversed I would still say the same thing. The National Memo owes it’s readers at least that much.

      • Genny Abbott: This is simply not heresay. so much has been OBVIOUS EVIDENCE from the start of when this story came out to the public–tapes witnnesses–from a month ago–resulting in no just action. Expert legal declarations made public have made that clear. Not just the the vigilante but the police mishandled this tragic CRIME from the very beginning. You & some of above commentators represent exactly what I talked about above–the extreme denial & fear of facing up to the truth of such a dangerous dynamic in our society. And it has nothing to do with being quote, unquote “liberal”–or “conservative” but some people fearing & thus hating others who differ from themselves in one way or another–may be skin color, religious, or political beliefs; large person vs small person, dress, certain habits–ad infinitum. It is some you who need to chill out enought to take a good look at yourselves & your own objectivity or ability to face up to truth if it flies in the face of your own preconceived notions– It can be threatening or painful can it now?

    • rustacus21

      … it could be we’re hearing the same thing, but interpreting it w/different meanings. Meanings subject to cultural ‘filters’, w/racial ‘hues’. Also, while we’re on the subject of “Liberal’ vs. ‘Conservative’, major media in this nation isn’t Liberal, but rather corporate & quite Conservative. Conversely, if U’ve been paying attention, U would know that Trayvon was on his cell phone when Zimmerman approached him, the ‘thumping’ noise she heard causing the phone to hit the pavement, cutting the call. Just prior to the confrontation, she told Trayvon to ‘run away’ from this ‘stalker’, not knowing why he was being followed. Did he assume robbery? A pedofile rapist? Or maybe a racist killer? We won’t know now, b/c w/Zimmerman obsessively trying to clear his name in the media, the ‘truth’ won’t come from him. But the tape & his own words don’t lie & his ‘intent’ was MORE than clear. THAT is the ‘other’ side to THIS story…

    • Bill none

      Looks like peteserb is perturbed.. but the issue is that Trayvon was PROTECTING HIMSELF and was NOT armed, and neither should Zimmerman been armed. His role was to REPORT possible crimes not teens wearing a hoodie and walking fast.
      When Zimmerman left hes vehicle to approach Trayvon, he was an armed threat, better if he had kept his nose clean instead to doin’ a Terry Stop. (look it up) It may well be shown in the cellphone playback with the girlfriend, she is the only witness for the Prosecution!! yes, prosecution, Zimmerman usurped Trayvon’s right to be on a public street and was accosted by an armed man with no credentials, and no power to stop a citizen. He had already filled his watchman role with the 911 call but sidestepped the purview of the 911 operator who told him specifically, “do not follow him, let him go” Get off your demagogue high horse yourself. It’s been written “The dead cannot cryout for justice, it is the duty of the living to do so for them” That’s what reasonable people do.

    • Idiot

  • peteserb

    Would the National Memo print a story without innuendo? I doubt it. You state that Zimmerman stalked and killed Trayvon Martin . When you know full well there is another side to the story. But then the Memo might become a news agency rather than an arm of Liberalism. Stop printing half of a story. Give both views. It’s always easy to demagogue an issue, but it’s difficult to tell the truth, when the truth goes against your bias.

  • OKsettledown

    Leonard, Leonard, Leonard. I have been reading your commentary for many years and I used to admire you greatly, but now, you turn every issue into “another shade of white” lament. I mostly agree that Zimmerman probably would not have suspected Trayvon Martin of ill-doing had he not been black. but there is more to the story than that. We have no idea what Trayvon was wearing that night except a hoodie. Were his pants around his upper thighs with his underwear sticking out? Did he have on one of those skull cap looking things? Chances are Zimmerman didn’t know, but had the kid been Hispanic, it would have likely come down the same way. Had the kid been white and looked like a thug, it likely would have been the same too. Trayvon had the third strike too by being black, but the problem is the gun happy society we are breeding today. I see it on Facebook, shoot first, ask questions later – with a picture of a gun. Leonard, there was a day when you would have written about that. Trayvon’s death is a national tragedy, not because he was black, but because he was a kid, and a yellow-bellied low-life with a gun killed him.

    • rustacus21

      Mr. Pitts’ portrayals are accurate & stark, but for those Americans living w/in ‘privilege’, non-Whites are simply invisible. As such, U wouldn’t know that many non-Whites, for a VERY LONG TIME, have sought to BE other than their own culture, if by chance, they could escape, by virtue of complexion. George Zimmerman looks every bit the Hispanic that he is. Why he’s being identified as ‘White’ is a mystery. His bizarre behavior is even more perplexing, being of a heritage that has & continues to suffer as much prejudice & racism as African Americans, he would ‘criminalize’ a young Black man so zealously? If he didn’t witness a crime, what was he, in fact, referring to? If he was aware of a ‘crime’ might he ought have reported it immediately? The ‘thing’ in Trayvon’s hand, a bottle of iced tea, the ‘hoodie’, or that he was ‘Black’ are all inconsequential to the fact that Sanford has a long, barbarously racist history, enhanced by the culture/class divide, that has made us all a bit more ‘crazed’. That we, as a nation, have not repudiated the South, for their continued ‘institutionalization’ of racism is going to be our damnation if we continue to ascribe to pathologies of Conservatives who, like Zimmerman, have ‘profiled’ OUR President! These are the ugly details of an America that many Americans continue hiding from. I would advise the reading of Michelle Alexanders’ ‘The New Jim Crow’, as well as Isabel Wilkersons’ ‘The Warmth Of Other Suns’, the latter of which has a passage about a near-lynching IN Sanford, early in the last century, that would have gone unreported & unpunished, by the police, as many, many ‘murders’ in Sanford, across the South & the nation have. Understanding this, U can then understand why George Zimmerman would ‘want’ to be other than his own heritage. But not the ignorance of Americans that racism is as vile a ‘crime’ by those directly engaging in it, as those who condone it or sit by as passive witnesses…

    • Just let me say that if I see a Hispanic man following me with a gun,I will automatically assume he is a cartel member,and kill him as soon as possible

  • OKsettledown

    Leonard, Leonard, Leonard. I have been reading your commentary for many years and I used to admire you greatly, but now, you turn every issue into “another shade of white” lament. I mostly agree that Zimmerman probably would not have suspected Trayvon Martin of ill-doing had he not been black. but there is more to the story than that. We have no idea what Trayvon was wearing that night except a hoodie. Were his pants around his upper thighs with his underwear sticking out? Did he have on one of those skull cap looking things? Chances are Zimmerman didn’t know, but had the kid been Hispanic, it would have likely come down the same way. Had the kid been white and looked like a thug, it likely would have been the same too. Trayvon had the third strike too by being black, but the problem is the gun happy society we are breeding today. I see it on Facebook, shoot first, ask questions later – with a picture of a gun. Leonard, there was a day when you would have written about that. Trayvon’s death is a national tragedy, not because he was black, but because he was a kid, and a yellow-bellied low-life with a gun killed him.

  • I’ve lived in America for over 60 years, fought in 2 of it’s wars, and as a Black Man lived in it’s worst neighborhoods. Only now do I feel it has become necessary to arm myself. Not to protect myself from the criminal element (as everybody SHOULD KNOW most criminals DO NOT carry firearms) but to protect myself from fear crazed White Folks. The Legislatures of the various States, pandering to these fears, have passed laws that in effect, have made it open season on minorities. The same laws that enable the Whites to arm themselves and carry weapons also enable minorities to do the same. I am now armed to the teeth, not to protect myself from criminals ( the Police now and have always done an OUTSTANDING job of that. ) but to protect myself from White Folks. I WILL NOT BE LYNCHED.

  • phantomoftheopera

    let me get this straight. an armed man trails a boy in his vehicle, despite being told not to. (reference 911 call). he then gets out of the car, after being told not to. (again, reference 911 call). the boy feels he is being stalked and is afraid (reference calls to girlfriend). at this point, isn’t anything he does self-defense? or does that only come into play when you murder someone with a gun? whether racially motivated or not, the man in the car is the aggressor. he started the incident. and sadly, having gotten in over his head, he ended it by murdering someone. which it sounds like is the purpose of the ‘stand your ground’ laws. prudent, smart, thoughtful people who value life know leaving is the best if you can. recently, a gun dealer in our state (washington) said you can’t legislate common sense. it appears you can legislate and encourage stupidity.

  • at 64 years , i can look back on a few years of interaction with every ” race ” known. i have been beaten into the sidewalk by ” white ” cops, had my life thretened by white pesons been in fights with white people, only once in my life have i experenced violence by a non-white man. i grew up in a ” black ” neighborhood, went to school with latinos, asians, and indiginous folks of the native american bent. lived in china town, worked in gettos. you may say what you wish, for me ” people of color ” are better folks on average then the ” whites” i have known. even in prison. by the way i am “white ” by birth not by choise.

  • Genny Abbott thought this was a very good comment & especially like Leonaeds Pitts’s summary line:: ” Folks, that’s not just white , it’s blinding” I would add: As blinding as the tall pointed white hoodies of the KKK which another commentator said are the only hoodies we need to fear–any person of that mentality of hate & character of the sociopath. That whole Sanford police dept., in my opinion, needs to be cleaned out along with city manager. Yes Now They are in Fear in the face of natiion whide rage & horror at how they have operated for a good long time, & now this climactic icing on the cake as exposed them so now the only motto for them & any supporters is “CYA”. What backs this up in my mind is the lenght of time, this horrid tradgedy has gone on, been dragged out, so each new day is another day to come out with a different new story line which has never been put forth before, & which is, each time seen by just the average person as well as good lawyers as totally ridiculous & incabable of being true. The public outcry is so great because so many identify personally with incident & know that this is all too commonplace all accross our land. these laws which they are trying to hide behind need to be abolished in all states that have them & gun laws+controls revisited along with strong, clear, enforced guidlines or laws surrounding neighborhood watches. May, at last, our consciousness be raised & eyes opened to the REALITY of serious racism, & radical extremeism of any who have an insatiable need to control others & target diversity in this land. We are sliding way down, & quickly, into a repressive third world type county.

  • Ted Stevens

    “Consider that; then consider the fair-skinned Hispanic man, George Zimmerman, who evidently stalked and killed an unarmed kid he wrongly thought was up to no good, yet was not arrested, nor even initially investigated. He said it was self-defense. Police took him at his word and sent him on his way.
    Folks, that’s not just white. It’s blinding”

    This is why they did not arrest Zimmerman: Zimmerman was detained and questioned for five hours after this incident. His injuries, the 911 calls, and several witnesses supported his statement: that Martin attacked from behind as Zimmerman was returning to his car, and that he shot Martin while being beaten. The police have no authority to detain a person who committed in self-defense what would otherwise be a crime unless there is evidence that disproves this contention. They had no evidence that this was not self- defense after this initial investigation, and they could not hold Zimmerman while they conducted an extended investigation. This information is freely available on the Sanford FL website. The original police report and witness statements are also posted there, along with the police chief’s answers to common questions surrounding this case.

    From what little information I am able to verify, I have some serious concerns regarding some aspects of its handling, but I am also concerned by your article. There isn’t much in your closing paragraph that suggests you have attempted to familiarize yourself with the fundamental narrative of this sensationalized and misreported case. You are a journalist, and this seems irresponsible and possibly dangerous given the amount of misinformation, conjecture and hate surrounding this circus. You seem blinded, sir, and I worry that you might be encouraging others to join you in staring into the sun.

  • I hardly ever read an article from Leonard that does not get to the heart of the matter and also educate me as to why things are the way they are. This article was beyond concise and brilliant. I really believed we were past race inspired murder in this country,but now realize it is only going to get worse. Unfortunatly I am starting to think Americans are going to get exactly the country the selfish, spoiled ,tribal, And just plain greedy ignorant people deserve

  • I lived and worked in DC for 8 years. The office was just two blocks from the Supreme Court building. There was one eating establishment around the corner from my workplace and across the street from the Eastern Market. I never felt so alive walking those streets filled with people from all walks of life and from all ethnic backgrounds.

    I had already established a strong friendship with one of my co-workers who is black. I am white. We happened to meet one morning during the 2008 campaigns, in the restaurant I mentioned above to grab a bit of breakfast. We gave each other hugs and a woman next to us said something I can never forget…”you two represent what this election is all about”! Yes, it was! and I have embraced the feeling and always have.

    When fear of anything overtakes the mind, it can be fatal…..fear of anyone who is of a different breed or color is understandable but totally unnecessary….I found that out not only with this experience but also growing up as a white child in an all black neighborhood….I learned so much about seeing beyond color or creed…it is sad and fearful that we are now at the brink of being scared of the boogeyman…and to think that we have regressed to the point where some of our fellow citizens feel self righteous and proud to have shot down an innocent citizen for no reason. And some who think our President isnt a citizen of this country…Personally I dont care if Barack was born on Mars…he is MY PRESIDENT and I will stand behind him …..