George Zimmerman and the Benefits of White Privilege


George Zimmerman is a beneficiary of white privilege. It matters not that his mother is Hispanic, for the benefits of white privilege can be bestowed on a light-skinned Hispanic who passes as white just as easily as they can be conferred upon a person who is “all white”.  Race after all, is a social construction, and if a person passes as white in a given setting then he is objectively white in that block of space and time. So while Zimmerman’s defenders like to play up his Peruvian mother and his Hispanic identity as proof that his alleged crime was not racially motivated, those defenses fail to stand up to the complexity of modern racism, which is not simply an issue of black or white but involves several shades of gray. Now it is hard to prove Zimmerman is a beneficiary of “white privilege” since we cannot quantitatively measure how he would have been treated differently if he were black and his victim passed as white, but we can note for comparison that in Florida, Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman was sentenced to twenty years in prison for “standing her ground” and firing a single warning shot to warn her estranged spouse, who had a record of domestic violence and was under an injunction to stay away from her on the night she fired the warning shot. Although nobody was injured, Marissa Alexander received a twenty year prison sentence following the incident.

In neighboring Georgia, a lawsuit has been filed because some courts have “accepted the race of a victim as evidence to establish the reasonableness of an individual’s fear in cases of justifiable homicide.” In other words, “I was scared for my life because he was black”, is a defense that can be considered reasonable by some courts.  Also in Georgia, a black man, John McNeil, is serving a life sentence for killing a white man who charged him with a knife on his own property even though Georgia’s “Stand your ground” law and its Castle Doctrine defense should have both applied to the case. In Both Georgia and Florida, it would appear however, that “stand your ground” is an acceptable defense for whites only and the laws do not apply to African-Americans, who prosecutors and juries seem to agree, do not have the same right to self-defense.

Although Zimmerman is finally on trial, he has been given the benefit of the doubt far too many times by the legal system in Florida. Consider Zimmerman’s history of violence. In 2005, Zimmerman was arrested for battery of a law enforcement officer and resisting an officer with violence, both felonies, after he assaulted a police officer in an Orange County bar. The charge was later waived in exchange for Zimmerman entering an alcohol education program. In the same year, his ex-fiancee, Veronica Zuazo filed a restraining order against Zimmerman, alleging that he had committed domestic violence against her.

Zimmerman benefits from white privilege when, despite his history of violence, many white people afford him the presumption of innocence, a courtesy many of them would not extend to a black shooter , with the same history, who killed a white teenager under the same circumstances. Would the Sanford police have simply questioned a black shooter who had a previous history of arrests and restraining orders against him, and casually release him because his story “checked out”, or would they have detained him and charged him with murder right away?  Would right-wing analysts on TV and bloggers online overlook a black killer’s history of violence and label a murdered white student a thug who deserved to die simply because he was suspended from school once? The answer to both questions is almost certainly not.

In addition, Zimmerman had a history of making dozens of “emergency calls” to the police to report suspicious black men, including one incident where he reported a “suspicious black male” between the ages of seven and nine years old. In the garbled 911 call he made on the night he killed Trayvon Martin, he appears to utter a racial slur. Zimmerman pursued Trayvon Martin and reported him as suspicious because he was a black teen wearing a hoodie. Zimmerman’s history of unwarranted suspicion directed towards African-American men makes him a racist.

Modern racism is often covert and its adherents masquerade as “colorblind” members of society even as they harbor subtle (or not so subtle) racial prejudices. Yes, Zimmerman is part Hispanic, but being part of an ethnic or racial minority does not automatically insulate someone from promoting white supremacy or anti-black racism. Zimmerman, after all, can pass as white with his fair complexion and Anglo-sounding surname. Furthermore, one need only look at the relations in some communities between Asian-American and Arab-American shop owners and black patrons to see that racial prejudice is not simply a black and white issue. Members of racial and ethnic minorities do not necessarily align with other minorities in solidarity against white power or white privilege.

The fact that George Zimmerman is half Hispanic and does not wear a white hood on his head or a swastika on his arm is of little consequence. His extreme suspicion of young black males contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin. Even as Zimmerman and his apologists may assert his “colorblindness“, it was his racial perceptions, subtle as they may have been, that ultimately contributed to the vigilante execution of Trayvon Martin.

The notion that a non-white person cannot advance the ideology of white supremacy is a naive notion that does not square with the reality and complexity of contemporary racism. Many on the political Right, have accused those of us who speak of racism with regards to the Trayvon Martin case as playing the “race card”. What they seem to overlook is that we did not deal this hand. When the deck is stacked a certain way, you have to play the cards that were dealt and call them as you see them. To do otherwise is to live in denial, and wishing racism away is not the same thing as ending racism. While some on the Right are expressing fears that if Zimmerman is acquitted, blacks will riot, a greater concern should be that if Zimmerman is acquitted whites and those who pass as white will continue to have legal sanction to murder African-Americans with impunity. White privilege in this nation has sometimes included even the privilege to murder and to be held up as some kind of folk hero for doing so. If George Zimmerman is acquitted, then white privilege in America will continue to carry with it, a license to kill, and the rules of engagement will tilt even further in the direction of protecting those who perpetuate racial injustice through the barrel of a gun.



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