I am used to watching ethnic conflict from afar: reading about Tibetan riots in the newspapers, and thinking about policy proposals to address structural inequalities. But when the verdict of “not guilty” came in for George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, America’s racial divide really hit home. It seemed like everybody had an opinion on the case, from the lowest dregs of society to the presidential palace. Barack Obama himself remarked, in not his first press conference about the Florida criminal case, that the slain Martin “could have been me 35 years ago”.
All over America, tears were shed, friendships were broken, and plenty of protests, revenge attacks, and riots were had. The facts of the case were perfect for such demagoguery: they were sufficiently ambiguous that reactions to the verdict, predictably, broke down along racial lines. Instead of considering the complex stories of both men, many commentators and more observers imagined themselves as either Martin or Zimmerman, depending on their shade.
But although slogans like “I am Trayvon Martin” have become so popular that Martin’s mother has trademarked them, no protestors are stomping the streets with signs that say, “I am George Zimmerman”. There are probably many reasons for this, but it doesn’t help that there is substantial confusion over what George Zimmerman is. Trayvon Martin’s unquestioned blackness has transformed him into a national martyr and a lightning rod for black resentment. As a result, and despite a complicated family history, certain segments of the press have un-consensually labeled Zimmerman as “white” to lubricate salacious narratives of black-white conflict.
In putting Zimmerman’s race on trial, two pieces of evidence are key. A professor writing for ABC News/Univision puts it thusly: “[First,] his surname seems to permit an easy identification with whiteness… [and second,] Zimmerman has… been squarely aligned with whiteness by virtue of acting in accordance with dominant social and legal strictures that render blackness a crime.” Indeed, since the name “Zimmerman” will be repeated over a dozen times throughout this article, and thousands more times over a 24-hour news cycle, it has a powerful hold on the imagination of readers and listeners.
Yet surnames are not genealogy books. According to the 2000 census, 85% of Americans with my surname, “Carroll”, identified solely as white. I am not one of them. I might have a mostly “white name” in English, but I have a fully Chinese name in Chinese. Neither name tells the full story of my ancestry, nor can such generalizations tell the story of every “Zimmerman” (95% white) or “Martin” (77% white). So, what is George Zimmerman? The talk show host Bill Maher posed this question to Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, to which he firmly answered: “George isn’t white and he’ll never be white”.
Robert Zimmerman described his family’s genealogy in some detail, but demurred to put a label on himself or his brother. That was the best that he could do, because there isn’t really a word for people like us. Our existence was so threatening to the whole rotten system of racial privileges that interracial unions were made illegal until 1967, and multiracial identities remained officially unrecognized until 2000. And still, powerful social forces prevent multiracial Americans, up unto the highest levels, from acknowledging our whole selves. These forces include comments like those from the quoted Univision professor, who stripped Zimmerman of his Hispanic heritage for the crime of acting in “alliance with white supremacy”.
But the high-handed theorizing about how race is a “process”, a “system”, or a “social construct” ignores how ordinary people experience race every day. Did George Zimmerman live his life as a “white” man before that fatal night in 2012, with all of the commensurate white privilege? One Mexican-American journalist bluntly noted that “Zimmerman’s skin tone is the same as mine, a medium brown…. [and] we couldn’t ever pass for white people.” Another half-Latino, half-white reporter wrote that Zimmerman “is browner than I am…. [and] has typically brown skin and ‘Indian’ features.” It’s telling that those who implicate Zimmerman as “white” need to make convoluted arguments about “social and legal strictures” to deny the man’s family members, personal truth, and lived experience.
“Justice for Trayvon” rallies won’t change the national conversation about race, and in some ways they represent a regression from post-Civil Rights era efforts at reconciliation. But every time a multiracial person comes out and asserts the complexity of his or her heritage, it brings America one step closer to confusing and overthrowing the damned system that feeds the rhetorical arsenals of the likes of David Duke and Al Sharpton. When people realize that they, their friends, or their family could be both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, then they’ll realize that they hold a stake in both men’s—and indeed all Americans’—lives. That is when the arc of history will have finally been bent towards justice.
James Carroll (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) James Carroll is a Rutgers student studying for his B.A. in political science. He regularly geeks out over the histories of China’s borderlands, but loves nothing more than to expose the ironies and hypocrisies of “dissident” and anti-authoritarian movements. As a connoisseur of all things queer, sarcastic, and sublime, James is always ready to have his worldview challenged by his adversaries, and expects the same respect from all of his readers.