First and most notorious, the shooter George Zimmerman, half-Peruvian and of mixed ancestry, had to be rebranded as a “white Hispanic.” The media would never think of typecasting Bill Richardson as a “white Hispanic,” let alone of referring to Barack Obama as a “white African-American.” Zimmerman’s 911 call was selectively edited and replayed in such a way as to suggest that he was fixated on an African-American suspect. By the same token, pictures demonstrating the full extent of Zimmerman’s injuries were largely ignored, as were some of Martin’s prior disturbing communications and the bothersome details of his student career.
Until the trial, we will not know exactly what happened that evening between Zimmerman and Martin, but we already do grasp that the media and the larger popular culture were intent on using the tragedy to insist that white-on-black violence is both ubiquitous and driven by racism — and that the confrontation was not the unfortunate product of the everyday friction of a multiracial society, in which, to the degree that race is a relevant statistic in such crimes, the ratio between black-on-white and white-on-black violence is about 39 to 1. No matter — even the president saw an opening and indulged in a bit of inappropriate pre-trial pop-editorializing, suggesting that the son he never had would have looked like Trayvon Martin. Bill Clinton, at a similar time of racial polarization, would have rightly been damned had he sighed that the second daughter he never had would have resembled the blonde Nicole Simpson.
Not long ago, Bob Dylan, killing time before a concert, was seen walking on a deserted street in Long Branch, New Jersey. He was not recognized by local police as a celebrity, but rather appeared to be someone suspicious enough to be detained for some police questioning. The surprised Dylan shrugged it off as a case of mistaken identity or understandable police concern. There was no national outrage that the reactionary police would dare harass a Sixties pop icon. Yet when similar confusion led to Harvard professor Skip Gates’s being temporarily held by police, it became a national scandal that elicited commentary from the president of the United States about the alleged stereotyping by law enforcement in general and the stupidity of the Cambridge police in particular.
The rationalization for all this asymmetry is the long history of racism and the persistence of white privilege, which mean that even in 2013 we simply cannot hold everyone to the same standard. Violence and incarceration rates for young African-American males are soaring. Conservatives largely attribute the tragedy to the erosion of the black family (especially the staggering illegitimacy rates and the absence of fathers from most homes, brought on by welfare dependency), to a popular culture that glorifies youth violence, and to a general reluctance by the black leadership to talk candidly about the roots of the problem. Liberals largely cite racism, social indifference, unfair drug laws and sentencing patterns, and too few federal programs. In the void between these two vastly different views, whites, both liberal and conservative, have tended to avoid talking about the violence of the inner city and have tuned out of racial discussions, which blacks have cited (“a nation of cowards”) as proof of their racism.
But the Dorner and Martin cases suggest that the old racial binaries are fossilized and increasingly irrelevant. The United States is now a multiracial society, an intermarried society, and an integrated society, in which racial identity is each year more confusing. As we have seen with Elizabeth Warren and Ward Churchill, race is becoming a construct frequently used by elites for purposes other than their concern for the general welfare.
Racial victimization is only with difficulty proven on the basis of skin color. E.g., why does the rather dark daughter of a second-generation Pakistani-American not deserve affirmative action of the sort routinely accorded to the rather light son of a third-generation Latino-American? Had Zimmerman Hispanicized his name, and appeared to the press as, say, Jorge Zapata, would he have been accorded immunity?