The conversation surrounding admitted killer George Zimmerman has, from the beginning, reminded me of the riot scene near the end of Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. (Apologies for spoliers, but it has been over 20 years.) The destruction of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, the three old guys who’ve been sitting on the corner all day start taking steps across the street, intending to do the same thing to the Korean grocery. Sonny, the grocery owner, swings a broom wildly to keep them away, screaming desperately, “I no white!”
News outlets, as they should have, took care to note from the start that Zimmerman is Latino, not “white.” His father was quickly out with the “he’s not racist!” quote, before his camp realized that there were other ways to defend Zimmerman (such as blame and shame his victim). While race has been an important factor, it’s being discussed in such tangential, and unhelpful ways.
Today, there are reports that in the seven calls Zimmerman made to Sanford, FL police since last August:
Zimmerman mentioned race only when the dispatcher asked him to specify, a fact that could bode well for the 28-year-old who has come under fire for shooting the unarmed black teenager in his gated community.
Sorry to be so blunt, but who cares? I say that even from a legal standpoint, seeing as Zimmerman is being investigated for a potential hate crime on the night of February 26, 2012 – not prior to that. This is the 911-call equivalent of the I Have a Black Friend!™ defense.
Writing in the Huffington Post last week, author Sam Sommers made a related point:
Let me be clear: this tragedy is all about race. While some politicians have suggested of late that “race shouldn’t be a factor” in discussing the case, it doesn’t take a behavioral scientist to tell you that Zimmerman would have been far less likely to view an unarmed white teen outside a convenience store as suspicious or worthy of surveillance…
…arguing about who the racists are – fruitless tilting at windmills that it may be – remains the easy way out because it preempts wrestling with the harder questions raised by Martin’s death.
In short, I don’t know whether or not George Zimmerman is a racist. And frankly, I don’t much care.
Sentiments like that are why I post the classic Jay Smooth video blog, “How to Tell People They Sound Racist,” above. Even though he posted it almost four years ago, it is an evergreen teaching moment, particularly in moments like these. It’s just as much about defining racism as it is conflict resolution in racially charged moments.
If you’re unable to watch online video, the distinction Jay draws the distinction between the “what they did” conversation and the “what they are” conversation – meaning, someone can do something racist, and we can deem it as such, without getting into whether or not they are a racist. The problem we saw in that Do the Right Thing scene is the same we’re seeing here – we’re worried too much about who people are, and not enough about what they did.
As Jay notes, if you go to the “what they are,” and you’re shouted down with denials, you end up talking about stuff that isn’t germane to the topic at hand. Such as one about reports of “Well, he didn’t mention race in his previous 911 calls!”