Is Empathy for Zimmerman Racist?

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

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. 


Need race-related advice? Send your questions to

Previously in Race Manners: "Yes, I'm Biracial and I Cover Black Stuff"

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.