We are running out of metaphors with which to describe the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Is this saga a Rorschach test, one where the polarizations of race, class, and political orientation (quite literally) color how we interpret the events of that tragic evening? Or is the killing of Trayvon Martin better described as a projection of sorts—where the realities of the color line and a society that systematically devalues the lives of black and brown people are amplified on a national stage?
At this point in our national ordeal, tragedy has succumbed to absurdity. In all, these matters have devolved into a three ring traveling circus worthy of PT Barnum and the flim flam artists of the early 20th century.
Zimmerman has offered a bizarre “apology” for killing an unarmed teenager that makes his death sound more like an act of God and random accident, than the result of one person’s desire to irresponsibly play vigilante toy cop. Thugs have assaulted innocent people as “retribution” and “revenge” for Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman’s defenders on the Right have magically discovered a deep love for the health and safety of black folks, as well as a profound concern about “black on black” crime. The reverse racists, racism deniers, and conservative adherents to the trinity cult of “gun rights,” white racial resentment, and black criminality have reimagined Zimmerman as a martyr, victim, and mascot.
This week, Reuters news service opened a new exhibit in this perverse roadshow. Chris Francescani’s profile of Zimmerman has all of the elements of a great spectacle, one that draws upon old anxieties and tropes about race in American life, while also adding some new twists. According to Reuters, George Zimmerman is apparently “part-black” through his great grandfather from Peru. Moreover, Francescani has innovated upon the classic “best black friend defense” for those who are accused of acting with racial animus, by profiling how Zimmerman’s grandmother was a babysitter for two African-American children.
In this tale, there is also an unnamed black informant who legitimates Zimmerman’s racial profiling of Trayvon Martin. She paints a portrait of a neighborhood under siege by black hooligans and thieves. Thus, in this narrative, George Zimmerman was a “reasonable” person who acted in good faith, as he meted out his version of justice on a person he decided was “suspicious” by virtue of his identity as a teenager who happened to be black, male, and walking down the street.
Apparently, in “post-racial” America, blood quantum, melanin, DNA, and familial associations are now immunizers for any charge or assertion that racism could have played a role in George Zimmerman’s decision to hunt down and kill Trayvon Martin.
Historically, race has been made, reproduced, and created in bizarre and absurd episodes such as the above. In the landmark Thind and Ozawa cases during the first decades of the twentieth century, Asian and Sikh Americans were denied citizenship in the United States by an arbitrary standard in which the Supreme Court famously decided that being “white” was determined by the common sense norms held by the average white man. Scientists studied skulls, bones, brain size, and posture in order to rank racial and ethnic groups in a hierarchy where “whites” were naturally and always on top. In the year 1915, during the height of Jim and Jane Crow and the KKK’s reign of terror, Leo Frank, a Jew, was convicted of murder and subsequently lynched for killing a white girl (an accusation he denied) in a show trial that hinged on the testimony of Jim Conley, a black man.
At present, America is at a demographic crossroad. With the “browning” of America and the growth of Latinos and Hispanics as America’s largest “minority” group, popular assumptions about identity and race are being challenged and renegotiated. For example, Latinos and Hispanics are an ethnic and cultural group; but they can be of any race. Many in the public are apparently unable to comprehend this fact.
George Zimmerman is an object lesson in these dynamics. The efforts to defend Zimmerman through appeals to his “racial identity” are one more part of a long and bizarre national play. In some contexts he is a Hispanic and honorary white person, who, like white conservatives, is a “victim” of black people in mass, and bogeyman activists and “race hustlers” such as Al Sharpton. Here, Zimmerman is framed as some type of model minority and “good” Hispanic who, like white people in the Age of Obama, is oppressed, a victim of reverse racism and racial hysteria.
Ironically, the very same conservatives who embrace and amplify Zimmerman’s Hispanic identity for the purposes of smearing Trayvon Martin, share a political worldview that is explicitly xenophobic and hostile to non-whites. This reality has been repeatedly demonstrated by Right-wing populist rhetoric such as “real America,” and “take our country back,” its adherents’ support of such conspiratorial fictions as birtherism, and their embrace of racial profiling, deportation of “illegal” aliens, as well as the elimination of Ethnic and Chicano studies programs in Texas and Arizona.
For the conservatives who have embraced George Zimmerman as a martyr and victim, his racial status is circumstantial, contingent, and wholly dependent on the political whims and needs of a given moment. Ultimately, if George Zimmerman was accused of hunting down and killing either a white teenage boy (or God forbid, a young white woman!) in exactly the same circumstances, his “Hispanic” identity would be turned into a liability and a sin, his honorary whiteness quickly and inexorably revoked.
As the public discourse surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin has revealed, many Americans still have a facile, flat, and thin understanding of how racism is more than mean words and deeds. It is complex, structural, and operative in many, if not most, areas of American life and culture.
However we choose to navigate the circus and spectacle that the Trayvon Martin saga has become, several facts remain true. By carrying a gun, George Zimmerman, self-styled vigilante and pretend cop, violated the rules of the block watch group he so obsessively fawned over, and in which he apparently had a near pathological investment in. George Zimmerman ignored police directives as he stalked and harassed an innocent person. George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon Martin was “suspicious” and guilty by association because he committed the “crime” of being black, male, and wearing a hooded sweatshirt on a rainy evening. And George Zimmerman made a series of choices that resulted in the unnecessary killing of a seventeen year old boy.
Unlike George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin will never be afforded a detailed accounting of his life such as the one offered by Reuters. He is dead, killed in the street by George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin’s life was stolen, not free to have the ups and downs, successes and failures that Zimmerman experienced in his 28 years (and in the decades likely to come). Trayvon Martin’s family is left asking what could have been. The answer was denied them by one man’s series of poor choices, and his obsession with “these assholes” that “always get away.”
Regardless of the color or race which George Zimmerman may identify with, one thing remains certain: he is a vigilante killer.