Racial identity


In Your Words: George Zimmerman And To Be White And Hispanic

Courtesy of Orange County Jail

A 2005 photo of George Zimmerman.

Race looms large in the story of Trayvon Martin, a black Florida teenager shot and killed by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claimed self-defense in the Feb. 26 incident and hasn’t be charged with a crime. The lack of charges have led to nationwide protests by those who believe Zimmerman would have been charged had Martin not been black.

But how much does the race of the shooter matter in the story? Zimmerman’s father is identified as white and his mother as Hispanic. Many believe Zimmerman racially profiled Martin, but Zimmerman’s family has used his ethnic heritage as a defense against such claims.

A number of you weighed in on the role of race in the story and the complexity of racial identity for Hispanics, who are considered a minority group in the United States. C_vs writes that Hispanic is an ethnicity, referring to “people of various backgrounds who are united by the Spanish language and Latin-American culture.” But Hispanics can be of any race.

Laribos writes that the Martin case highlights the need for more nuanced ways to identify Hispanics:

Continue reading

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman And Beyond Black And White

Werth Media / Flickr

A photo of Trayvon Martin appears on a protester's sign during a March 19 rally in Sanford, Fla.

A national debate about racism in the criminal justice system has been reignited by the Feb. 26 killing of an unarmed black teenager in Florida by a non-black man who hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Here’s what happened, according to news reports and newly-released 911 recordings: Trayvon Martin, 17, was walking from a convenience store to his father’s house in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. That’s when Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman, 28, spotted him. Zimmerman called 911, reporting a seeing a suspicious person. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman said to the dispatcher, and began following Martin. A struggle ensued and Martin, unarmed, was fatally shot in the chest. Zimmerman claims self defense and hasn’t been charged with a crime. Federal authorities announced late Monday that they would launch a full-scale criminal investigation following protests over local police’s handling of the case.

The narrative appears to be a sadly familiar one, of seemingly double standards, of little to no punishment when the shooter is white and when the person shot is black. Benjamin Crump, the Martin family’s lawyer, has said that if the roles were reversed and Trayvon Martin was the shooter of a white man, an arrest would have been made immediately.

Orange County Jail

A 2005 photo of George Zimmerman.

But a letter from Zimmerman’s father, Robert Zimmerman, to the Orlando Sentinel complicates the narrative. Robert Zimmerman writes that his son, George, is “a Spanish speaking minority.” (He also goes on write that his son has black family members. “The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth,” the letter states.).

Orlando Sentinel reporter Rene Stutzman has been closely following the case and had an exclusive interview with Robert Zimmerman. Stutzman tells DCentric that George Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Hispanic.

Does Zimmerman’s Hispanic heritage change the larger story? Maybe not, but it does demonstrate that America’s longstanding black-white debates about racism have been complicated by the country’s shifting demographics. Racial identity for Hispanics is much more fluid than for other groups. Many Hispanic immigrants feel they are accepted as white by larger society, but those with darker complexions still face plenty of discrimination, according to a 2010 American Sociological Association report. In other words, a light skinned Hispanic, such as Zimmerman, may be treated as a white man by larger society, while a darker Hispanic may be treated as black. And when it comes to racial profiling, anyone can discriminate against anyone else. A person can even be sued for racially discriminating against another person of the same race.

In the end, no matter how many debates about race this case spurs, one thing won’t change: a teenager who was carrying little more than a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea is dead. And for now, a community is torn apart as so many questions remain unanswered.

The ‘Non-African-American’ Ethiopian Immigrant

Adrian Murphy / Flickr

Ethiopian flag

What does it really mean to be “African American?” Does the term refer to people with slaves as ancestors, or is it just as applicable to recent African immigrants?

It’s a conversation we’ve previously explored, and it’s front and center in an ongoing legal dispute involving a jazz club near Howard University.

Here’s the gist, according to the Washington City Paper: The Enterprise Theater & Jazz Lounge was opened by Charletta Lewis, who is now suing her landlord. She claims that landlord Michael Ressom racially discriminated against her by leasing her a building that wasn’t up to code, and therefore, she couldn’t legally open for business. Lewis is black, Ressom is an Ethiopian immigrant. Her complaint states that Ressom “is a non-African-American man.” Ressom and his lawyer declined to comment to the City Paper, while Lewis’ lawyer Jimmy Bell explained:

“He’s not African-American!” Bell says, when asked if Ressom’s ethnicity damages his case. “African-American means you are a descendant of a slave! This guy’s an Ethiopian immigrant, who wasn’t naturalized as a citizen until November 2010.”

General discrimination claims of this sort aren’t that all uncommon. Some taxicab complaints were officially filed with the D.C. Taxicab Commission by people who write they are black and claiming they were racially discriminated against by African cabbies. But for every story about animosity between D.C.’s black and Ethiopian communities, there is another about good will and unity between the groups.

Still, our question remains: is lumping everyone together as “African American” really the most accurate racial identifier?

In Your Words: Black or African American?

Leo Reynolds / Flickr

Last week we wrote about the ongoing debate over whether “black” or “African American” is the preferred term among black Americans born in the United States. A 2011 The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that 42 percent of respondents preferred to be called black, compared to 35 percent who went by African American and 13 percent who said it didn’t matter.

We noted some complexities within this debate — what about African immigrants, non-black Africans and second-generation Americans with roots in Africa? A number of you with similar backgrounds chimed in to offer thoughts on what you preferred to be called, and how you’ve navigated racial identity in America.

Commenter Frenchie wrote she prefers to be called “Haitian-American:”

I prefer not to be called African-American because it doesn’t  correctly encompass my history or background. Additionally, there  continue to be tensions between “member of the African diaspora, “exotic” blacks  and African-Americans  “regular” blacks. That often painful and tense history continues to prevent black immigrants from feeling as if African-American can ever be an all-inclusive term and, thus, makes “black” our default.

Some readers were unsure of what to call themselves, such as commenter Cia0912:

Continue reading

Black or African American?

Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images

The 2010 Census form had one option for "black, African American or Negro."

What do you say: “black” or “African American?” As someone who regularly writes about race and demographics, I often find myself using both terms interchangeably. But there is no clear on consensus on which term is most accurate or preferred, as Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington writes in a story this week on the debate.

Washington notes that the term “African American,” which came from the black intelligentsia, became popularized after the Rev. Jesse Jackson used it in the 1980s. Jackson told reporters at the time: “Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical, cultural base. African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.”

But not everyone today prefers to be called African American. According to a January 2011 The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll [PDF], 42 percent of respondents said they preferred to be called black, compared to 35 percent who preferred African American (13 percent said it didn’t matter). From Washington’s story:

Continue reading

Complex Answers to ‘Where Are You From?’

Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Census form first asks respondents whether they are Hispanic or Latino and then asks about race.

By A.C. Valdez

Asking someone “Where are you from?” may seem simple enough, but it’s actually a tricky question, particularly for mixed-race Latinos. For instance, before asking your race, the U.S. Census form asks whether you are Hispanic or non-Hispanic. What if you identify as both?

My father is a genealogy buff, and although I’ve generally been uninterested by it, I do owe it to him that I know at least a bit about where I come from. My ancestry is quarter German, quarter Irish and half Chicano. My father grew up in South Texas, an area heavily populated by Latinos. For many Americans, that would seem to indicate that most residents are immigrants who recently settled in the area. But going back far enough, it’s likely that my ancestors have been around since Texas was first colonized by Spain. In other words, the border crossed us, not the other way around.

Continue reading

“Blackness that is uniquely and indisputably American”

Flickr: Natalie Woo

Billboard from 2009 along California's Interstate 5 freeway.

More on race and perception, though this time, the issue is not what people see– it’s what they know about President Obama’s ancestry. In “For Birthers, Obama’s Not Black Enough“, Melissa Harris-Perry wonders if the President’s lack of connection to “the historical variation of blackness that is uniquely and indisputably American” is part of what makes him suspect to those who doubt his citizenship:

The American slave system disrupted the ability of enslaved Africans to retain or pass along their ethnic identities. Igbo, Ashanti, Akan, Yoruba and Hausa became interchangeable units for sale. While slaves nurtured fragments of cultural, religious and familial traditions, much of the specificity of their African experience was surrendered to an imagined and indistinct notion of “Africa.” Moreover, the law did not initially recognize slaves or their US-born children as American. So enslaved Africans were women and men literally without a country, defined solely in terms of their labor value. Their descendants eventually achieved citizenship, but to be an American black, a Negro, is to be a rejected child who nonetheless clings to her abusive father because she knows no other parent. To be a black American descended from slaves is to lack, if not a birth certificate, then at least a known genealogy—to have only a vague sense of where one comes from, of who one’s ancestors were and of where one belongs.

In this sense, Obama is not very black. He is not a Negro. As a black man, President Obama’s confident and clear knowledge of his lineage is precisely the thing that makes his American identity dubious. Unlike most black people, he has easy access to both his American and his African selves.

When Part-Latino Men are Considered ‘White Dudes’

In responding to a Wall Street Journal story about how white children are now the minority in many states as the number of Hispanic children grows, D.C.’s Matthew Yglesias writes:

I think this is a widely misreported trend. When the New York Times recently did a piece on me, Ezra Klein, Brian Beutler, and Dave Weigel exactly zero people complained about the massive over-representation of people of Latin American ancestry that reflected. People saw it as a profile of four white dudes. Which is what it was. But my dad’s family is from Cuba, Ezra’s dad’s family is from Brazil, and Brian’s mom’s family is from Chile. That’s kind of a funny coincidence, but the combination of continued immigration and intermarriage means that over time a larger and larger share of American people will be partially descended from Latin American countries.

The New York Times profiles four (white) pundits.

That Times piece on Yglesias and his fellow, young pundits did receive plenty of criticism (and even its own parody!). But Yglesias is right: no one criticized the over-representation of Latin American-ancestry among the four subjects. The reporter behind the piece even commented on the “white maleness” of the story.

When it comes to Latinos and Hispanics, racial identity has proven to be a much more fluid thing than for other groups. For instance, let’s take a look at Latino immigrants: a 2010 American Sociological Association report found that there are many Latino immigrants who are accepted as white by larger society, but those with darker complexions still face plenty of discrimination. It even suggested a new racial category to describe Latinos could form.

Continue reading