How the Trayvon Martin case has divided America

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The killing of Trayvon Martin has brought many people together, but has exposed the various divisions along racial, political and media lines as well. As America awaits the possible arrest of George Zimmerman for killing the 17-year-old black man, the chasm widens. Trayvon’s death may not have created these divisions, but rather — like the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, the O.J. Simpson trial and the execution of Troy Davis — it reminds us that these divisions stubbornly refuse to disappear.

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The polls bear out the reality. For example, a new Washington Post-ABC poll found that 55 percent of whites believe blacks and other minority groups are not treated the same as whites in the criminal justice system. However, over 80 percent of blacks feel that they and others are getting a raw deal in the courts compared to whites.

Other major polls have framed the divide in terms of black and non-black attitudes about the case, and in doing so have ignored the views of Latinos, the nation’s largest and fastest growing “minority” group. And when this rather important demographic is not ignored outright, Hispanics are lumped together with white Americans and rendered white.

For example, according to a Gallup poll, most blacks think Zimmerman is guilty of a criminal act, and three-quarters believe racial bias was a factor. Meanwhile, only 11 percent of non-blacks say Zimmerman is definitely guilty, and most said they had no opinion or were unclear. The polls mirror the racial divide in 1995 following the O.J. Simpson verdict, when Gallup reported that 78 percent of blacks thought the jury was correct to find Simpson not guilty of murder, as opposed to only 42 percent of whites.

Race is an inextricable part of the Trayvon Martin shooting and its aftermath. An unarmed black teen was shot to death and the police refused to arrest, and the prosecutor refused to indict, Zimmerman, who has claimed self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. The shooter appears to have used a racial epithet in the 911 call to police the night of the incident. Further, voices in the black community are reasonable to conclude that a black murder suspect under similar circumstances would have been arrested immediately and thrown under the jail.

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Moreover, Sanford, Florida, where Martin was killed, has a long history with racism that it cannot shake off. Years ago, Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball, once fled Sanford on two occasions, including after he was threatened with violence by a mob of 100 angry locals.

However, this recent case is not merely understood in terms of black and white. After all, George Zimmerman has a Peruvian mother and a white father, and presumably identifies as Hispanic. The media have identified him as white, Latino, “Hispanic” and “white Hispanic.” As ethnic, and not racial, designations, the terms Latino and Hispanic include diverse people of various racial backgrounds, including black, white, indigenous, Asian or any combination of the above.

Meanwhile, referring to Zimmerman and others as white Hispanic reflects a lack of understanding of the Latino community. This also ignores the African roots of Latin America, and the African influence on Spain, for that matter.
Fox News host Geraldo Rivera created a firestorm by claiming a hoodie was as much a factor in Martin’s death as the shooter. Some Latino groups accused Geraldo and others in the media of using the Hispanic card and dividing blacks and Latinos.

“George Zimmerman is half Latino, but his mentality appears to be completely white supremacist. We suspect that Geraldo Rivera’s mentality is not far from Zimmerman’s,” wrote New York-based community activists called Latinos for Trayvon Martin. The group called for Zimmerman’s arrest at a recent press conference at Hostos Community College in the Bronx.

In a nation where just about everything becomes a political partisan issue, especially in an election year, Trayvon Martin is no exception. President Obama angered conservatives when he said “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Zimmerman’s family has accused the black U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder of racism for refusing to arrest the New Black Panther Party for hate crimes. The militant group has offered a $10,000 reward for Zimmerman’s capture.

Zimmerman’s now-former attorney Hal Uhrig accused MSNBC Politics Nation host Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson of turning the case “into a racial event when it never was one.”

And Zimmerman’s father accused civil rights groups, black political leaders and the president himself of spreading racial hatred.

“I never foresaw so much hate coming from the president, the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP,” Robert Zimmerman declared in an interview with WOFL last month. “Every organization imaginable is trying to get notoriety or profit from this in some way, but there’s so much hate. I’ve never been involved in hate and George hasn’t. … I just hope at one point everyone will go beyond the hate that they have.”

Emboldened by a black president and hardwired to attack every position he takes, conservative voices have doubled down on their support for George Zimmerman and their narrative of black criminality. Sean Hannity of Fox News and Tucker Carlson of the Daily Caller have called those who seek justice for Trayvon “race-baiters.” And although his lawyers could not reach him and are now no longer representing him, Zimmerman is now speaking to Hannity and apparently seeking refuge in the right wing echo chamber.

Uhrig said in a press conference that his client had “called Sean Hannity of Fox News directly, not through us,” adding that, “we believe that he spoke directly with Sean off the record and he’s not even willing to tell us what our client told him.”

In a troubling alliance between right wing media and hate groups, the Daily Caller published information on Martin’s email and Facebook accounts that were purportedly hacked by a white supremacist. The hacker and conservative media have sought to demonize the deceased victim and paint him as a dangerous black teenager who deserved to die. In addition, the Fox News Orlando affiliate called the neo-Nazi group patrolling Sanford a “civil rights organization.”

“The wheels are in motion for a complete character assassination of Trayvon Martin,” said MSNBC host Ed Schultz. “They are also making the case that Zimmerman was justified in pulling the trigger because the kid had a tattoo and posted a picture of himself flipping off the camera,” he added.

Perhaps one of the most striking example of the racial viciousness played out in the media is the column written by John Derbyshire.

“Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally … Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods … If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks … Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks … If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible,” Derbyshire wrote.

“Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians … Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white … Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway,” he added.

Derbyshire was subsequently fired.

In death, Trayvon Martin has revealed the fault lines of race in this troubled nation. Denial is abundant, as is outright racial animosity, and the failure to come to terms with the inequities black people face in the courts. If people take a side, they should side with justice.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove