Commentary: Ethnicity is a red herring in Trayvon Martin case

The Sacramento BeeApril 4, 2012 

I suppose my ethnicity could be described as "Hispanic white" just as the New York Times has described George Zimmerman – arguably the most reviled man in America for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin.

Martin was the unarmed 17-year-old African American youth who was wearing a hoodie in a gated community when Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot him and later claimed self-defense.

All week, controversy over Zimmerman's ethnicity – he is Peruvian on his mother's side – has been combustible fuel in a story highlighting racial tension in America.

His family and friends claim that because he is half Latino, he is not capable of racially targeting Martin.

Zimmerman has already escaped arrest for the Feb. 26 killing because of a Florida self-defense law that "grants people more leeway to attack and even kill someone who is threatening him," wrote the Wall Street Journal.

National outrage speaks to public doubt of Zimmerman's self-defense claim. His family's assertions that he is not capable of racism have exacerbated public unrest.

To many, the central issue is that Martin was a young African American in a hoodie, a symbol of foreboding in our culture. His death became an example of how such young men can be subject to racial profiling and even be murdered without repercussions.

I wasn't going to write about this issue but felt compelled to do so.

As the light-skinned son of Mexican immigrants, I know that in our weak moments, Latinos are just as capable of racism as anyone else.

Anyone who says otherwise is either lying, delusional or is related to Zimmerman as he hides out amid national scorn.

If you travel throughout Latin America, you'll see cultures and communities that often mistreat citizens with dark skin. In Mexico, there is no greater insult than to call someone an "Indio," or Indian.

The wealthiest communities and major television networks in Latin America are populated with people of light skin and light eyes.

I could go on and on, but the point is that Zimmerman's ethnicity is a red herring.

The 911 tapes indicate Zimmerman made derogatory comments about Martin based on his appearance.

A police dispatcher in Sanford, Fla., told Zimmerman that authorities did not want him to follow Martin.

The point of a neighborhood watch is to look out for your neighbors, call police if need be – and then get out of the way. It wasn't Zimmerman's place to engage Martin in any way.

Meanwhile, what's the worst that you can say about Martin, whose death has inspired protests in Sacramento and gained global attention? That there is a chance Martin might have met Zimmerman's aggression with aggression?

I might have done the same thing when I was a 17-year-old kid. A young man at that age has limited judgment. His ability to process anger and fear is remedial compared to later in life.

You're young and dumb. I often reflect on those late teenage years and thank God I didn't get killed and miss all the joy that lay ahead of me.

When I think of Martin, I'm reminded of Daniel Hahn, who recently became the first African American police chief in Roseville. As a mixed-race teenager in Oak Park, Hahn had his angry and rebellious moments and was even arrested once by Sacramento police – the department where he would later serve with distinction.

Today, Hahn is a role model and a beloved figure among his circle of friends and colleagues. But what if he had crossed paths with someone who was unprepared to carry a gun when Hahn was still stumbling as a teenager?

A life of joy and achievement would have never enriched other lives, including mine.

President Barack Obama said if he had a son, he would have looked like Martin. Friends such as Sheldon Orviss, a TV personality on Fox 40, posed in a hoodie along with his three sons in a moving photograph Orviss posted on his Facebook page. Other friends and associates did so as well.

The faces in these photographs spoke to the sanctity of life, a point too easily lost in the din of our racial politics.

A hoodie is just a hoodie. A gun is just a gun. But a life is precious. Martin might have lived a life of distinction and joy, but we'll never know.

The smoking gun in this story isn't what he was wearing or whether he was the aggressor with Zimmerman. The smoking gun is that the gun never should have been fired at all.

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