I am George Zimmerman. Not in some key ways, of course: Zimmerman appears to be a gung-ho vigilante who's more than likely prejudiced against African Americans. I don't like guns. And I respect diversity and black heritage as key ingredients in our nation's glorious history and culture.
But President Obama suggested today that the “context” and history of racism has been missing from the Trayvon Martin case. He's wrong. This case has been almost entirely about that.
Witness the Trayvon Martin “Smash White Supremacy Fun Run” in Westwood last night. Witness the endless shouting matches on CNN and Fox News and MSNBC.
The problem is that the facts of the shooting itself have essentially been twisted and pushed aside. We're not talking about the reality of what happened that night so much as the discrimination against young black men like Martin. That's fine with me. It's an important conversation to have, and healthy. But don't say we're ignoring the prospect that the teen was shot simply because he was African American.
It's all people were talking about when they advocated for Zimmerman to be charged in the first place. And it's all the protesters on the streets in L.A. have been saying all week.
Of course, the case proved much more nuanced and complicated than that. Obama said “context is being denied” in the debate over Martin's death. Indeed, although not in the way he meant it. The context includes the actual facts of the case that the jury heard: That Zimmerman was apparently attacked — brutally, if the photos (below) of his injuries are an indication — and that Martin was on top of him when he pulled the trigger.
Was Zimmerman following the teen because of his race, or even because of his hoodie? Did he attack first? While both of those things may seem likely to us, they were not the facts heard in the courtroom.
The distortion applied to the Trayvon controversy reminds me of the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. Harlins, a black teen, was shot in 1991 by a Korean storekeeper, and it quickly became another tragedy where people forgot all the facts (the shooter, 51-year-old Soon Ja Du, who walked with no jail time, had been assaulted before she pulled the trigger). You might call it the original stand-your-ground case — and it was a major factor, along with the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King, in the subsequent L.A. riots.
It even reminds me of the controversy over the latest Rolling Stone Dzhokhar Tsarnaev image, a book judged by its cover if ever there was one. Everyone's shouting about whether the magazine erred; no one's actually reading the story it published.
But another important context being denied here is that Zimmerman is Latino, and quite typically so. The shooter, like myself, is half-Latino.
The very idea that this was simply a white-on-black crime is false. If we're going to have a conversation about race and racism, let's start with the truth. In 2013, it's way more complicated than a redneck neighborhood watch coordinator shooting a black teenager.
Zimmerman, as I've told friends, is browner than I am. The media has awkwardly referred to him as a “white Latino,” but more than one in two Latinos in the United States also identifies as “white.” It's pretty much who we are: mixed. Latinos are almost by definition a blend of European and indigenous blood.
The shooter has typically brown skin and “Indian” features. And our Latino friends who have been marching with the Trayvon protesters and denouncing racism in the case need to face the fact that we can't pick and choose who's Latino. We can't claim that only the good ones are Latino, while allegedly racist, suspected murderers are white — excommunicated from the so-called raza.
A brown-on-black crime makes Martin's death no less tragic. Indeed a colleague suggested that even if an African American man pulled the trigger under the same circumstances — following the kid, perhaps confronting him for allegedly appearing out of place in an upper-middle-class community — Trayvon's slaying might still have made headlines.
But we shouldn't sweep aside the fact that Latinos are minorities. We're people of color too.
We have stood with African Americans for civil rights and justice. (The Orange County case Mendez, et al v. Westminster School District in 1947 first established school segregation as unconstitutional.) We have suffered the same kind of socioeconomic stratification that has plagued America in recent years. In South Los Angeles, Watts and Compton, we live in the very same neighborhoods. We suffer from racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, even though most of us were born here.
That, to me, makes this case a little different than the simple black-and-white paradigm it's been forced into.
Obama today said this:
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
There are probably very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.
There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.
That happens often.
And, you know, I — I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.
Immediately afterward a Facebook friend issued a call to his Latino amigos to ask if they too have ever experienced some of these things. He got nearly 50 responses, mostly all affirmative, and 44 likes.
I joked that I have permanent dents in my skin from all the keys that have been thrown at me over the years, keys tossed by jerks who assumed I was the valet.
I live in a fairly upscale Westside neighborhood and, in fact, while jogging at night I have been stalked and gawked at by people in vehicles (and, yeah, I gave them a challenging what's up, as Martin might very well have, and justifiably, done). I once had a local cop straight-up ask if I was Latino.
Boo-freakin'-hoo, you say — Half-white people problems. It's better than being shot. And you're right. We shouldn't get into a pissing match over oppression here. It would be disrespectful to African American history, and it doesn't really get us very far.
Obama suggested that we recognize “a history racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws.” Sure. But that should apply to all minorities.
Latinos, who make up half the L.A. population, are over-represented in county jails and state prison. Driving while brown is a problem. Hardcore Latino gangs in Southern California are a contagion.
So what are the young African American kids we've seen on the streets of L.A. since Saturday angry about? Sure, they're mad that someone who looks like them was profiled and killed and, as Obama said, that the judicial outcome might have been different if the kid was white.
But more than anything, young people are restless.
In the months before the L.A. riots of 1992 I was reporting on the streets of South L.A. when I experienced a mini-riot of sorts as a white supremacist was scheduled to speak at a local church. There was a lot of anger in the air — and this was before the Rodney King verdict.
I get the same sense now. Not a lot has changed — except that the residents of South L.A. have become more and more Latino. Both black and brown people are fed up with a lack of jobs and this shite economy. They look north and see new high-rises, alleged progress. They see the rich getting richer and themselves jogging in place.
There is a sense of disaffection and rage. Young African American kids rampaged through Hollywood Tuesday without once mentioning Trayvon, and they did the same in Long Beach days before that verdict.
The motive in those cases seems to have been economic: Teens were grabbing t-shirts, goods and iPhones, cops said.
If this is an opportunity to talk about race, it's also a time to talk about opportunity. Let's expand this beyond a shocking and somewhat unique case of a brown guy shooting an innocent black kid. Let's talk about the resegregation of our public schools. Let's talk about minority kids getting a fair shot at enrollment in our increasingly expensive state colleges. After all, our tax dollars pay for them too. Let's talk about how L.A. traffic court defendants are overwhelmingly minorities. Let's talk about people of color getting some of those good, high-paying jobs in Hollywood, too.
Context? Sure, Mr. President. We welcome this conversation, but let's also invite the nation's largest minority group, Latinos, a word you failed to mention today. And let's talk about all the other contextual background, namely this economy, that makes many young, African American men believe that the American dream doesn't apply to them.