One of the public sphere alleyways that keeps cropping up around the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is the issue of the “race” of Zimmerman. The main current holds that Zimmerman is ‘white’, with a pushback from those that counter he is mixed race and/or Latino, because of his Latin American heritage. The remarkable thing about this binary construction is that people of all ideologies, points of views and ethnic identifications are found on all points of its spectrum.
There are ‘white’ racists who seek to claim Zimmerman in their discursive battle against encroachment by the non-white; there are Latinos, also racists, who want to join in; and Latinos and mixed-race persons who want to broaden the conversation so that it actually makes sense to their lives and experience, and whites who wonder how they are to view race, when it is so easily one thing one day, and another the next.
There are African Americans who believe that all people but African Americans receive some level of privilege in society, and some who don’t feel they are obligated to create a taxonomy of race whenever yet another black man or teen is murdered by a racist vigilante or police. Then there are those who find the nature of race identification in America so confusing that they always elect to put off such questions until a mythical some day when everything will be hashed out.
But a reality far more pertinent than Zimmerman’s race is Zimmerman’s identification with, and interpretation of, his race. It seems clear that Zimmerman considers himself ‘white’, of course [as these anti-Latino MySpace comments indicate]. But it’s even clearer that he also subscribed to a definition of race, class and privilege firmly rooted in white supremacist ideas.
The latter is the most virulent source of racism, more powerful than skin tone, or the ethnic identification one is assigned and then chooses when becoming cognizant of such things. More importantly, identification provides a much clearer way to sort through the muddle of often competing and negating claims in the public sphere of race discourse. This is especially true in the age of Barack Obama, an African American president who continues to support both the traditional de facto race-based prison system, and its newer feature, the de jure ethnic gulag of Guantanamo and other ironically named “black” sites.
Zimmerman thought of himself as a white person, he acted like he thought a white person should, and he chose to view the world through a white supremacist filter—most likely because he thought that’s what white people do. It seems even likely, considering the age-old conundrum for those of ‘mixed-race’, that he needed to prove he was even whiter than other white people to make up for his perceived short-comings, no doubt brought on by racist attacks on him and Latinos in general throughout his life and in media.
But it needs to be noted that a Zimmerman in a Latino context, hanging out with other Latinos in certain areas and situations, would be profiled by authorities as a non-white person, subject to the same kind of profiling which he used on Trayvon Martin. It’s even possible to imagine a morbidly humorous situation with an incredulous border area policeman assuming that Zimmerman’s documents are false, because he does not look like a “Zimmerman” should.
Does Zimmerman look white? Even asking this question is to buy into ideas of whiteness that have been constructed through centuries of political manipulation by the American power structure, which has at times needed certain people to be non-white, and has just as easily made them the pinnacle of whiteness short decades later, as in the case of the Irish, Polish and German immigrants.
This, I think, becomes a crucial idea in the coming years as previously “non-white” people are poised to assume not only a demographic, but possibly political dominance, and as the global south chooses how it will escape the shadow of US and western control. I think one need only look at the ease with which Obama has convinced a nation of formerly ambivalent and/or mildly anti-war people of all races to love drones and root for the murder of Islamic and non-white identities to appreciate the potential of this shift.
Given Obama’s shocking statements after the verdict combined with these facts, it can be said that Obama is the most powerful white supremacist in the country. This is true, despite the fact that he was being completely honest and accurate when he claimed that Trayvon Martin could have been his own son.
My own experience has taught me a valuable, if worrying lesson. People of all races can identify with white supremacy because white supremacy is so ingrained in the fabric of our society that it often takes years of introspection and dialogue for even the most subjugated people to rid themselves of it.
When I was publicly accused of being a “suspected terrorist” last year, most of my accusers were white. But several non-white people came to support the accusation as well. Remarkably, all of them accepted “evidence” from federal government enforcement agencies like the FBI and the now-dizzying gaggle of espionage agencies the US employs in the global south. They accepted the federal government’s definition of terrorism; they accepted profiling based solely on race/ethnic identities; they supported indefinite detention based on that profiling; they accepted stereotypes of Latinos as “drug dealers”; they propagated a government document that was little more than a propaganda device to increase support for oppression of people of color throughout the US and abroad.
They did all this for the whitest rationale of all—safety against a threatening and politically manufactured “other”. This rationale is at the heart of a justice system and humanitarian imperialist global system; it was the rationale and overbearing compulsion for Zimmerman and Miguel Masso; it informed the decision of the six jurors who freed Zimmerman; it is the beating heart of Stand your Ground; it is why re-entering undocumented people of color are the fastest growing population in federal prisons; and it forms the rubric for the inhuman and race-based solitary confinement being protested by California prisoners by hunger strike this week.
The real question beyond whether Zimmerman was white or not according to the current definition of race, is if it matters. Any non-white person can be a victim of white supremacy, and African Americans are the most consistently and historically victimized. But whether any of us are racists is something we must increasingly interrogate ourselves about, no matter what our skin color, names, or other cultural signifiers might tell us.