Race and Privilege in Trayvon Martin's Death

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. speaks during a rally. (Mario Toma/Getty Images)
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. speaks during a rally. (Mario Toma/Getty Images)

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. examines race and privilege in the death of Trayvon Martin, saying that being white means having one's personhood and individuality respected, a privilege so basic that he doubts it registers with many as a privilege at all.


I’m here to explain why George Zimmerman is white.

This seems necessary given the confusion and anger with which some readers responded to my use of that word last week in this space to describe the man who shot an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin to death last month in Sanford, Fla. One person wrote: “Mr. Zimmerman was Hispanic not White plez do your homework before writing your column!!!!”

But it is they who are wrong. There are two reasons. The short one is this:

“Hispanic” is not a race, but an ethnicity. As the U.S. Census Bureau puts it in its 2010 Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin, “People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.”

The long reason begins with an understanding that the word in question — race — is a term both meaningful and yet, profoundly meaningless. It is meaningful in the sense that it provides a tool for tribalism and a means by which to organize our biases, fears, observations, social challenges and sundry cultural products. It is meaningless in the sense that, well . . . it has no meaning, that there exists no definition of “black” or “white” that carries any degree of scientific precision.

Read Leonard Pitts Jr.'s entire column at the Miami Herald.