Latinos and blacks, close and far apart

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 16, 2013


The acquittal by jury of George Zimmerman, the man who killed African American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Sanford, Florida, has put the issue of racial tension, discrimination, profiling and inequality back on the agenda in the United States. More than five years after the first African American president was inaugurated, racial tension remains a latent and potentially polarizing issue in the United States. Though the outrage over the controversial acquittal will soon go away, the dramatically different readings of the events that exist among white and African US communities underline the deep-rooted differences in the way different ethnic groups in the United States see racial issues.


Since the news broke on February 26, 2012, the death of the young African American high school student has been surrounded by controversy. Despite a name that would indicate otherwise, George Zimmerman is half Latino, his mother is Peruvian. With a prior history of violence, Zimmerman, who legally owns guns, alleges that he acted in self-defence after Trayvon Martin had attacked him. The facts of the case are confusing. Zimmerman, who lives in a gated community, called the policy to report a suspicious person. After an extended conversation with the operator — in which Zimmerman described Martin as a possible criminal — the phone call was terminated. Apparently, a violent confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin ensued. Zimmerman shot Martin, who was unarmed, in the chest, causing his immediate death.


When police arrived in the scene, Zimmerman was detained, but after the police found no contradictions on his allegation of self-defence, Zimmerman was released. The event provoked immediate national outrage. Even President Obama commented, saying that if he had a son, that son would look like Trayvon. The fact that there was no evidence, other than Zimmerman’s testimony, that Trayvon Martin had attacked first meant, many saw the case as a perfect example of racial profiling against blacks. However, given that Zimmerman had a stereotypical Latino look, the case did not conform to a traditional white-against-black case of racial inequality. After a special prosecutor was appointed, Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder and manslaughter. On July 13, a jury acquitted him.


In the wake of the jury’s decision — and given the controversy over the facts that surrounded the shooting — many US people have been forced to deal again with the nation’s complex history of racial tensions. Although the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president had important symbolic implications, living conditions of African Americans in the US remain well below the national average. The median income among whites in the US is US$54,000, but among blacks it is only US$32,000. Only 52 per cent of African American male teenagers graduate from high school in four years (78 percent of white young males do). African Americans are more likely to be poor. Thirty-eight per cent of African American children live in poverty, compared to 12.4 percent of whites. In relative terms, inequality between whites and African Americans has actually worsened over the past 30 decades.

Yet, the fact that the man who pulled the trigger was Hispanic — though his father is white — underlines the higher complexity of racial issues in the US today. Representing more than 17 percent of the population, Latinos can be whites, black, indigenous or any mixed-blood combination. Though they are slightly better off than African Americans, Latinos are also near the bottom of the income ladder in the US. The mean income for Latinos is US$37,750. Latinos are also overrepresented among the poor, with 35 percent of Latino children living in poverty.


After the jury reached its verdict, several protests and vigils were held by African American communities across the US. A couple of isolated riots were also reported. Among the Latino community, the reaction to the verdict was mixed. On the one hand, many Latinos have been discriminated against and are often victims of racial profiling. Because of their lower educational level and because many others are recent immigrants, Latinos are closer to blacks than to whites in the income and social ladder. However, Latinos have not suffered historical discrimination as blacks have. Interracial marriages between whites and Latinos are far more common than among whites and African Americans. In fact, Zimmerman’s mother, a Latina woman, married a white man.


On August 28, 2013, Americans will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech. Martin Luther King’s speech has become a call for racial unity and his life has inspired many who strive to build a society where people are judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. The outrage over the tragic death of Tryvon Martin and the controversy generated by the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot him, constitute indisputable evidence that racial tensions remain as a latent force in the US. The different readings that whites and African Americans make of the same events highlights that often, the way US citizens interpret and signify tragedies is still determined by the colour of their skin.