George Zimmerman: Right-Wing American Jesus, Martyr, and Mascot for Post-Racial America
We are running out of metaphors with which to describe the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Is this saga a Rorschach test, one where the polarizations of race, class, and political orientation (quite literally) color how we interpret the events of that tragic evening? Or is the killing of Trayvon Martin better described as a projection of sorts—where the realities of the color line and a society that systematically devalues the lives of black and brown people are amplified on a national stage?
At this point in our national ordeal, tragedy has succumbed to absurdity. In all, these matters have devolved into a three ring traveling circus worthy of PT Barnum and the flim flam artists of the early 20th century.
Zimmerman has offered a bizarre “apology” for killing an unarmed teenager that makes his death sound more like an act of God and random accident, than the result of one person’s desire to irresponsibly play vigilante toy cop. Thugs have assaulted innocent people as “retribution” and “revenge” for Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman’s defenders on the Right have magically discovered a deep love for the health and safety of black folks, as well as a profound concern about “black on black” crime. The reverse racists, racism deniers, and conservative adherents to the trinity cult of “gun rights,” white racial resentment, and black criminality have reimagined Zimmerman as a martyr, victim, and mascot.
This week, Reuters news service opened a new exhibit in this perverse roadshow. Chris Francescani’s profile of Zimmerman has all of the elements of a great spectacle, one that draws upon old anxieties and tropes about race in American life, while also adding some new twists. According to Reuters, George Zimmerman is apparently “part-black” through his great grandfather from Peru. Moreover, Francescani has innovated upon the classic “best black friend defense” for those who are accused of acting with racial animus, by profiling how Zimmerman’s grandmother was a babysitter for two African-American children.
In this tale, there is also an unnamed black informant who legitimates Zimmerman’s racial profiling of Trayvon Martin. She paints a portrait of a neighborhood under siege by black hooligans and thieves. Thus, in this narrative, George Zimmerman was a “reasonable” person who acted in good faith, as he meted out his version of justice on a person he decided was “suspicious” by virtue of his identity as a teenager who happened to be black, male, and walking down the street.
Apparently, in “post-racial” America, blood quantum, melanin, DNA, and familial associations are now immunizers for any charge or assertion that racism could have played a role in George Zimmerman’s decision to hunt down and kill Trayvon Martin.
Historically, race has been made, reproduced, and created in bizarre and absurd episodes such as the above. In the landmark Thind and Ozawa cases during the first decades of the twentieth century, Asian and Sikh Americans were denied citizenship in the United States by an arbitrary standard in which the Supreme Court famously decided that being “white” was determined by the common sense norms held by the average white man. Scientists studied skulls, bones, brain size, and posture in order to rank racial and ethnic groups in a hierarchy where “whites” were naturally and always on top. In the year 1915, during the height of Jim and Jane Crow and the KKK’s reign of terror, Leo Frank, a Jew, was convicted of murder and subsequently lynched for killing a white girl (an accusation he denied) in a show trial that hinged on the testimony of Jim Conley, a black man.