Is Empathy for Zimmerman Racist?

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

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

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.”

So, is it a nice word? No? Is it the product of a racist society? Absolutely. But is it actually racist? I think if we pay any attention to context (which is all too rare in discussions about this type of stuff), it’s difficult to make that case.

HannibalHarris: Can you understand why some white people might rally behind the defense of George Zimmerman and might be less than sympathetic to the people who’ve been, thus far, supportive of Trayvon Martin? Which is to say: Does every white person who understands how Zimmerman might have killed Martin out of fear have to be a racist? Does it always have to be about the race card?

JDH: If their view is that Zimmerman killed Martin out of fear because black teen boys are inherently a little bit scarier than their white counterparts, or because they represent a threat in places where they “don’t belong” (read: predominantly white places), then yes, that’s racist.

I think your concern with whether people who hold these views are labeled racist represents an opportunity to talk about how narrowly defining the term “racism” so that it only applies to the most venomous, intentional and vicious forms is exactly what allows racism to persist — as does the belief that accusations of racism and use of “the race card” are as damaging as being victimized by racism.

Racism is not the bogeyman term that some people work very hard to make it into; it doesn’t mean you actively hate black people or have never had a black friend.* Instead, it refers to the systems of racial power and hierarchy within society and the structures through which they are maintained. If you can’t see how a view that it’s cool/understandable to be afraid of (and ultimately kill) someone because of his race is part of all that, then I’m not sure what to tell you.

*I’d add that it’s also not the case that black people can’t internalize and have attitudes that are informed by racism. I give very little deference to black commentators who embrace and accept the idea that an African-American teen has to do better/dress better/be more careful just to stay alive.

The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter. 

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Previously in Race Manners: “Yes, I’m Biracial and I Cover Black Stuff

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