Trayvon Martin case: Will it deepen the black vs. brown divide?

OPINION - However the Martin/Zimmerman case turns out, there's more at stake than legal justice for Martin's family...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Of all the possible problems that could come out of the Trayvon Martin saga in Sanford, Fla., the one that could carry the most long term damage to the advancement of positive race relations in the United States is the tension the professional punditry has perceived between African-Americans and Latinos over the handling of the case.

Martin, 17, black and African-American, was fatally shot Feb. 26th, as he walked with candy and iced-tea in his pocket from a convenience store to his father’s fianceé’s home in a gated community in Sanford.

The shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, a man who “appears” white, and whose father and mother have Jewish and Latino roots, respectively, has been neither arrested nor charged in the homicide. Supporters of Martin’s family have aggressively pushed for Zimmerman to be arrested and criminally charged, since Martin was unarmed, and some say Zimmerman initiated aggression between the two by apparently disregarded a 911 dispatcher’s caution to stop following Martin.

In the resulting furor, TV and radio pundits have speculated that what was an already strained relationship between African-Americans and some Latinos in Martin’s South Florida region will only get worse, as lines are drawn between support for criminal charges and defense of Zimmerman.

There is no doubt there are tensions on a hyper-local level. The New York Times reported last weekend of tensions between African-Americans and Latinos in Durham, North Carolina, where Latinos acknowledge harboring greater negative feelings toward African American neighbors than the other way around.

The Times report generally supports a 2008 Pew Center study that revealed African Americans don’t feel as negatively toward Latinos as Latinos do about them, though large percentages of both groups acknowledge that there is systemic discrimination that both sides face.

But one major problem with the current punditry is that history disputes the notion that there is some grand tradition of bitterness between African-Americans and Latinos.

“While you will find those issues on a neighborhood level, like we read about in the Times, on a broader level, a political level, what you’ll find is a history of parallel civil rights fights,” says historian Julie Weise, a professor at the California State University – Long Beach.

“Look at the African-American civil rights movement in the 1960s and the Chicano Movement that started a short time later. It obviously followed and learned from the [black] civil rights movement.”

Both Tom Bradley, the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles, and Henry Cisneros, the Latino former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, won their respective offices thanks to broad African American and Latino voter coalitions, Weise says.

Perhaps even worse than the idea that African-Americans and Latinos are on the verge of war in the U.S. over the apparent mishandling of the initial Trayvon Martin investigation, is that most of the punditry exposes a shocking lack of knowledge about race and ethnicity, as prescribed by widely accepted science.

Why describe Martin as both black and African-American? Because black very loosely describes his appearance, while African-American defines his ethnic heritage. If you doubt as much, try telling white immigrants from South Africa that African-American is an exclusively black definition. As for Zimmerman, sure, his skin’s fair. His hair is straight. By all practical descriptions, he’s white. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s also ethnically part Latino.

While these are distinctions that all of us should have learned in a basic high school world history or geography class, it’s important to reiterate them here, as pundits continue to talk about Zimmerman as though he could be only white or only Latino, but not both.

If the very clear difference between race and ethnicity is lost on the professional talking heads, how can they be expected to properly gauge the relationship between African and Latino Americans?

However the Martin/Zimmerman case turns out, there’s more at stake than legal justice for Martin’s family. It is a cultural relationship that, in modern times, dates back 50 years, when the late Cesar Chavez launched the National Farm Workers Association (later known as United Farm Workers) in an effort to secure civil rights and better working conditions for Latino farm workers in the U.S.

Chavez’s organization paralleled the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., and served as the second blow of a one-two punch against what was then a long history of institutional civil rights violations in the U.S.

Three years before his death in 1993, Chavez, in an interview, praised the blueprint King drew for securing justice credibly. “He learned how to successfully fight hatred and violence with his unstoppable power of nonviolence,” Chavez said of King.

Tensions on the neighborhood level? Those can be worked out by people humbling themselves and getting to know their neighbors. But on the national level? Pundits would be wise to stop shouting fire, or fuego, in the crowded theater of public opinion.

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