Losing an Issue to Racial Politics
SAN DIEGO -- In recent weeks, I have heard from quite a few people who are curious as to why more Hispanics aren't leaping to the defense of one of their own.
This would be George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old who was recently charged with second-degree murder in the tragic death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.
For those who believe that Zimmerman acted in self-defense and the decision to prosecute him was driven by racial politics, there is this nagging question as to why Zimmerman -- whose mother is from Peru -- doesn't seem to be getting much support from the Hispanic community.
It's a fair question. And I agree with the observation that Hispanics have been fairly guarded in their public comments about Zimmerman and the case.
Just like other Americans, many Hispanics have strong opinions about the case. Yet so far, they seem to be keeping those opinions to themselves.
There are at least three possible explanations:
(1) Maybe a lot of Hispanics have decided that the noise and chatter are so loud right now that they wouldn't be heard even if they did try to jump into the conversation. This case isn't as simple as black-and-white, but those are the color lines that are now dominating the discussion and shaping people's perspectives. We're a country divided by race -- again. African-Americans look at Zimmerman and see a dangerous vigilante who singled out Martin because of his skin color, while many white Americans see someone who is now in hot water because he tried to defend himself against an attacker. Latinos don't fit neatly into either camp, and so it's no wonder that they've kept quiet.
(2) Many Hispanics are not sure how "Hispanic" Zimmerman really is. The suspect is multicultural, but it's not clear whether he identifies more with his Peruvian mother or Jewish father. We've all known people whose blood might be Hispanic but their heart isn't. In this case, it was Robert Zimmerman, the young man's father who insisted that his son couldn't be racist because he is Hispanic. Besides being illogical -- after all, Hispanics are just as capable of racism as anyone else -- the comment was also a little too convenient. It appeared as if Robert Zimmerman was a little too eager to identify his son as Hispanic in a weak attempt to inoculate him from criticism. This makes many Hispanics suspicious of the motives of everyone involved, as if they're being thrown under the bus when we haven't even determined whether the suspect is authentically Hispanic.
(3) Many Hispanics -- having been in their own lives unfairly singled out for extra scrutiny by both local police and federal immigration agents based on skin color or physical appearance -- are uneasy about the possibility that this story is really about racial profiling. If this neighborhood watch captain zeroed in on Martin because he was a black teenager in a hoodie as opposed to a white teenager in a hoodie, then -- whatever else transpired from there -- that's wrong and indefensible. Under this scenario, to many Hispanics, Zimmerman would become less of a victim and more of a villain. And so, until this is settled and we know exactly what led Zimmerman to suspect Martin was up to no good, Hispanics would naturally be reluctant to defend him.
It isn't that Hispanics aren't compassionate or they don't care about justice being done. That's why we have criminal trials where prosecutors bring evidence to try to prove a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. There is no such standard when we try someone in the media, as has been done up to now with Zimmerman. That sort of thing will often happen in cases like this, but it shouldn't be encouraged.
Hispanics have exactly the right perspective in this case, and they shouldn't change it for anyone. It's been depressing and alarming how quickly both white and African-Americans have jumped to conclusions that fit best with how they see the world despite the fact that they don't really know what happened that night.
Instead of asking why Hispanics aren't rushing to support George Zimmerman, what we should really be asking is why so many Americans are rushing to convict or exonerate him.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben(at symbol)rubennavarrette.comCopyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group