Is Empathy for Zimmerman Racist?

In her latest Reddit AMA, our Race Manners advice columnist tackles more of readers' hard questions.

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George Zimmerman on the 20th day of his trial (Pool/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- In her third Reddit Ask Me Anything, our Race Manners columnist, Jenée Desmond-Harris, opened herself up to more of your burning questions about race. Check out the conversation here.

jdaniels2002: Growing up, I always heard my dad say, "NOTHING in America happens where race isn't a factor." My dad is 60 now, but as someone who's younger, would you agree?

Jenée Desmond-Harris: I don't think everything is primarily about race (for example, when we discuss the impact of particular issues on different groups of Americans, it may be more effective to do the analysis through the lens of class versus ethnicity), and I don't think everyone is always consciously thinking about race.

However, I'd agree with your father that it's impossible to divorce just about anything that happens from our country's racial history, from the lasting effects of state-sanctioned racism and from attitudes that persist today. I also think it's appropriate for people who care about equality to make conscious efforts to scrutinize everything from elections to awards shows to individual interactions for their impact on racial justice. My answer to people who ask (and they ask all the time), "Does it always have to be about race?" is that it doesn't have to be, but for those of us who care about this stuff (that's fairness, opportunity and justice, not colorblindness), it probably should be.

wwjcac: How do you feel about the term "cracker"? Specifically, how do you feel about the way some people try to paint people who say it is racist?

JDH: So, this term really had its 15 minutes of fame over the past couple of weeks, between the testimony that Trayvon Martin used to refer to George Zimmerman and some people's view that it was every bit as bad as Paula Deen's n-word gaffe. You can probably guess where I come out on that: not at all.

I think on a very superficial level, each term refers to people of a particular race and has negative connotations. But the similarities end there. Beyond the obvious difference in power dynamics and emotional impact (I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a white person with the experience that felt anything like the one Brittney Cooper wrote about for Salon this weekend, in which while on a plane, she caught a glimpse of a seatmate's text message referring to her as a "big fat n--ger"), there's the simple matter of history and, well, meaning.

NPR's Code Switch did a great job of explaining the word's origins, so I'll link to that here instead of reinventing the wheel. But let me highlight a point made in the story by Florida historian and anthropologist Dana Ste. Claire that convinces me that "cracker" is more of an assault on white people who have racist attitudes than an expression of racism (a pretty important distinction).

As Code Switch explains, "It was in the late 1800s when writers from the North started referring to the hayseed faction of Southern homesteaders as crackers. '[Those writers] decided that they were called that because of the cracking of the whip when they drove slaves,' Ste. Claire said. But he said that few crackers would have owned slaves; they were generally too poor. (That of course, doesn't mean they weren't participants in the South's slave economy in other ways.)

"Ste. Claire said that by the 1940s, the term began to take on yet another meaning in American inner cities in particular: as an epithet for bigoted white folks. But he wasn't sure how it happened."

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