By Ed Morales
We can’t let the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial widen a rift between Latinos and African-Americans.
Zimmerman is half-Peruvian, and many conservative commentators seized on this as proof that he could not be a racist. But the claim that Zimmerman’s minority status precludes him from bigotry doesn’t make sense. Some white Americans have been shown to be racist despite being married to a minority group member, and many Latin Americans, despite being primarily of mixed-race background, have their own baggage.
According to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, 10 times as many slaves were brought to Latin America as opposed to the United States, and slavery was a major historical factor in the region. Although the government of Zimmerman’s ancestral Peru issued a statement in 2009 apologizing for the “abuse, exclusion, and discrimination,” blackface characters still appear on network television there.
In Miami, the town Trayvon Martin had been living in, there are strong racial tensions between Haitian or African-Americans on the one hand and lighter-skinned Cuban-American policemen on the other.
There were major riots in Miami’s black neighborhoods in 1980 when police killed a black man who had already surrendered, and in 1990 tensions festered because Cuban-American politicians snubbed visiting South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.
While there have been many official gestures attempting to repair those rifts, in Florida there is an inescapable divide between privileged whites and Latinos and struggling African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans.
Biased treatment at the hands of the police is a big part of the problem. Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel in an interview with Piers Morgan put her finger on it. Denying that her use of the word “cracker” to describe Zimmerman was racist, she instead said it referred to someone “acting like a policeman.”
By inappropriately taking on the persona of a policeman, Zimmerman was, for Martin, symbolic of white privilege, making it hard for Martin to see his “multicultural” background.
If nothing else, the perceived unfairness of the Zimmerman verdict has forced America to confront the underlying racial bias in our criminal justice system.
None of this means that there is an irreparable conflict between Latinos and blacks in this country. Latinos were prominent in the demonstrations against the verdict, and advocacy groups like the National Council of La Raza have joined with the NAACP to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder to urge him to file a federal case against Zimmerman.
That’s a good start, and there are broad grounds for working together down the road.
First, Latinos in America have themselves endured an increase in racism and violence recently, as the immigration issue has heated up. Second, unemployment rates are chronically higher for African-Americans and Latinos than for whites. And third, many Latinos have at least partial African roots.
The Zimmerman verdict offers an opportunity for Latinos to achieve effective solidarity with African-Americans.
Ed Morales wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.