Literally Getting Away With Murder: George Zimmerman & White Privilege

16 Mar

Image via WinterArtwork.

[Trigger warning: Discussion of murder, racism, rape, and intimate partner violence].

On February 26 at 17-year-old Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by the head of the neighborhood watch of the (predominantly white) community where his father lives. While George Zimmerman, the murderer, claims that he was acting in self-defense there is pretty much no evidence to corroborate those claims. According to a 911 call Zimmerman made, he described Martin as “suspicious” apparently because he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and walking slowly. At this point, Zimmerman hasn’t been charged with any crime, and the Sanford police reiterate that he was acting in “self-defense.”

But I think we can all be honest about this: Trayvon Martin was shot because he was a Black kid in America, and Zimmerman is currently free because he’s a white man. And in a white supremacist society like our own, when we assign values to people, the white man is always more valuable than a Black man.

And this is what happens when we assign these values. Innocent 17-year-olds are shot and authority figures do jack-shit because they’re racist and the institutions they work for — the judicial system, the police — that are supposed to protect us actually just protect the status quo. Imagine if the situation was flipped, if a Black man shot a white kid and then claimed self-defense. No one would have to raise awareness, no one would have to protest the lack of justice. It would be instant. That man would be in jail. Period.

But George Zimmerman is white, so he gets away with this, despite his confession, and despite Trayvon Martin’s family calling for justice. He knew, from his position of privilege, that he could shoot a Black kid for being Black and that when the cops came they would be predominantly white, and hold the same prejudices that he does, and not arrest him. That they would actually give him leading questions and guide his story before officially questioning him in the murder that he admitted to. Oppressive constructions of race need to be examined in this case. Because Zimmerman knew exactly what to say to the police to justify his shooting a young Black man. He called him “suspicious”, and in doing so employed racist ideas about Blackness that have been deeply ingrained in our society. The ideas that Black men are inherently dangerous, animalistic, deviant, and threatening. These are (untrue) notions that have been used since the founding of this country to oppress and justify the killing of Black people. Slavery was a way of “controlling” the “animalistic”, “wild” Africans who were kidnapped en masse and killed to create the economy of the United States and benefit the white people who lived here. Brutal lynching was the response to the “threat” of Black male sexuality as it was (and still is) constructed to the purity of white women. So, aware of this context, or at least of racist constructions of Blackness, given his own prejudices, Zimmerman called Trayvon Martin suspicious and then he shot him.

This is not the first time the Sanford police department has failed to address racially-motivated murders in the community. And it certainly is not going to be the last time something this horrific happens, because our system is fundamentally flawed, fundamentally racist, and engineered to oppress people of color. We’re all to blame when such racially motivated violence as this occurs. When I say we, I mean white people, and I do include myself. How many times have white women bought into myths about the scary, insatiable, dangerous Black male? Despite the fact that a woman is more likely to be raped by someone of the same race, one of the most pervasive rape myths is that of the stranger rape, at night, in an alley, where the victim is typically thought of as white and the assailant as Black. How often have I bought into that myth? How often have I believed racist ideas about Black masculinity and media portrayals of violent Black men and crossed the street just because a Black man walked toward me? Honestly, I don’t know if I can answer that question. Until I came into my feminist consciousness in the beginning of college, I had little knowledge of white privilege. I understood the existence of racism, but I did not understand the way I benefit from that system because I am white. And I did not realize just how much of the American racist ideology I had internalized until I really began to examine my own privilege.

And a certain aspect of that privilege is that I will never know what this is like. I will never know what Trayvon Martin experienced or what his family is experiencing now. I read this incredible post, “How Many More Trayvon Martins?” today (seriously, read this now), where the author explained, that, as a Black woman someday she is going to have to talk to her son about racism, about white people who hate him for being Black, about unmitigated violence like the murder of Trayvon Martin. She writes,

This is what Black and Brown folks go through when we decide to have children. I’m not saying that white people don’t have concerns when they raise their children, but this experience is uniquley ours. You can take a look at the statistics, and see that racial profiling the Black and Brown people have to deal with simply doesn’t apply to white people. For example, look at the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” practice. In 2011, they stopped a total of 684,330 New Yorkers. A total of the 87% of the people stopped and frisked were Black or Latino.

And she’s completely right. She goes on to say that white people don’t have to explain racism to their children. We don’t have to enumerate such threats to our children’s lives, we don’t have to explain racial oppression. But we should. We have to. We have to so this stops happening. Travyon Martin’s murder, and the subsequent collusion of the police department with Zimmerman, will play out again and again until white people acknowledge their privilege, which ranges from finding make up in the white “nude” shades to not being shot because of one’s race, and decide to fucking do something about it. We have to educate ourselves, understand the lies we have been told, understand the context of white supremacy that we have been indoctrinated in, and learn to check our privilege. We need to learn to shut up, and to listen to people of color, and we need to challenge our society and its institutions. Teaching Tolerance from the Southern Poverty Law Center is an excellent resource on how to be a white ally to people of color and how to understand your privilege. (And this is a great guide to being an ally as well).

We need to examine the media we see and our responses to it, which are often based in our own racism, even as progressives and feminists. Why was Herman Cain pushed out of a presidential campaign for allegations of sexual assault (please note, I am not defending Herman Cain, I think he’s a fucking scumbag), while Julian Assange is lionized as a persecuted liberal hero despite having allegedly raped two women? Why do we only ever talk about how Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna (again, not defending Chris Brown), and never about how Michael Fassbender abused his girlfriend, or how Sean Penn abused Madonna? And as quelola on tumblr points out, why do we only care about crimes against Black children when a Black man is the perpetrator (Joseph Kony) and yet there is seldom outrage when a white man kills a person of color?

Addressing this injustice is a change.org petition to charge Zimmerman with murder that keeps getting more signatures. Everyone should sign this, the more signatures and the bigger the outcry, the more likely a positive (as positive as it can be) outcome. And on March 21st you can wear all black in respect for Trayvon Martin and others who have been murdered as a result of racism and who have not seen justice.

(Note: I capitalized Black and not white in consistency with the style used in the article “How Many More Trayvon Martins?”)

Edited at 11:44 a.m. to link this post from the Crunk Feminist Collective which says everything I wanted to say but does a far better job.

Edited at 9:00 p.m. on 03.18: Before you comment saying that George Zimmerman was not white, please read thisthisthis, and this.

23 Responses to “Literally Getting Away With Murder: George Zimmerman & White Privilege”

  1. mike jones 03/16/2012 at 11:18 pm #

    i disagree and just like everyone in this world your a racist just like the next, I agree that this sounds like shit and the investigation should be carried out by a different athority, but that dude doesnt even look white but even if hes white or whatever doesnt change anything. by posting your comment you are adding to the race wars in this and every country in the world. If a white gets murdered by a black you never hear the race card, if you can find one count of that in the media in a nation level please send it to me because I’ve never seen it.

    • Katie O. 03/17/2012 at 10:55 pm #

      I’m not entirely sure you read this whole thing, but okay. Actually, if he’s white it does change things. George Zimmerman is hispanic and white, however he is light skinned and benefits from white privilege, which is what this post is about. If you really think that this is “playing the race card” you clearly did not read the post. As as for fueling “race wars”, I think you should look at someone other than me to blame. How about the white man who shot a Black child and got away with it? And the police department that has done absolutely nothing? This has everything to do with race. Please tell me another reason why George Zimmerman would shoot an unarmed child carrying Arizona iced tea and Skittles? It wasn’t self defense… Zimmerman had about 100 lbs and a gun on Trayvon Martin. There was absolutely no reason to kill this child. You can listen to the 911 tapes and find out for yourself: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/16/trayvon-martin-911-audio-_n_1354909.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003 He shot him because our society is a white supremacist society and he saw a Black kid and decided that kid didn’t belong in a mostly white neighborhood and he’s gotten away with it. You’re right that if a Black person kills a white person you don’t hear much about it because everyone assumes the police will do their job and protect the interests of the white person. In death penalty cases, 76% of the victims in the cases on death row were white even though only 50% of murder victims are white (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf). If a white person is killed, it’s more than likely justice will be served. There have only been 18 executions in cases with a white defendant and a Black victim versus 252 executions with a Black defendant and a white victim. Doesn’t that seem SERIOUSLY skewed to you? Black men are disproportionately likely to be on death row versus white people who committed comprable crimes. So this has absolutely everything to do with race. I’m against the death penalty, but do you think that it would even be considered for George Zimmerman if he were even charged with murder? Yeah, I don’t think so.

  2. Karen 03/17/2012 at 8:44 am #

    This is horrible this man murdered a child he needs to go to jail he is an evil man these police are not doing their jobs

    • Katie O. 03/17/2012 at 10:56 pm #

      I totally agree that he needs to go to jail, and it’s such an abhorrent miscarriage of justice that he hasn’t even been charged. The police are, at this point, just trying to protect themselves and this white man who killed a kid. It’s despicable.

  3. Lyn Bourassa 03/17/2012 at 3:09 pm #

    I am in shock over this. I can’t beleive that this can even happen. How is this possible? Good Lord what have we come to as a people in the United States? How easy is it that the two could have met in the past and Simmerman held a grudge and planned and executed this poor kid under pretense of being a “guard”. Sickening. Appalling. Cold blooded murder. What the hell is going on? This takes me back to the time when people of color were just killed for the hell of it. I am white. Husband hispanic. We must stop citizens from paroling the streets as they can easily kill anyone they hate and cover it up.
    Whjat makes me feel like vomiting is the police department in that area and how they look the other way as if a cat was was just run over. They are disgusting.Gross. Nasty. I am so upset over this.

    • Katie O. 03/17/2012 at 11:00 pm #

      I love that you mention that the police department are just treating this like a “cat that was run over”. I think it’s a great point… People of Color are so dehumanized in our society that many do just view them as animals not as full human beings. And that’s absolutely how the police are behaving in this case, as if Trayvon Martin were not a human being. Someone who deserves justice for being murdered in cold blood. The police tapes have been released (I haven’t had the stomach to listen to them), but according to witnesses Trayvon Martin didn’t have a single chance at getting out of that. I have no idea how anyone can believe it’s self defense when he was a skinny 17-year-old who was completely unarmed. You’re right, it is just appalling.

  4. jack 03/18/2012 at 6:44 pm #

    btw, He is NOT white, he is Latino.

    • Katie O. 03/18/2012 at 8:55 pm #

      I already addressed this in another comment, but here we go again. Zimmerman is half white, half Latino. Regardless, he has light-skin and passes as a white man. As such he still benefits from a system of white privilege. Here is a more in-depth response to this claim from a person of color: http://poemsofthedead.tumblr.com/post/19467654465/if-you-feel-the-need-to-a-pronounce-zimmerman-as.

      Additionally, Zimmerman has a history of racism against Black individuals (http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/17/2700249/shooter-of-trayvon-martin-a-habitual.html#storylink=cpy) to the point where a Black man living in the community said he did not feel safe because of Zimmerman’s racial profiling.

      • Michael 09/16/2012 at 11:53 pm #

        This is such a weak argument. If you had any understanding of “privilege” you would know that Zimmerman is not able to benefit from all areas of white privilege be he knows he is not part of the mainstream race.

        A gay person who is mistaken for straight doesn’t get to marry the person they love just because no one knows.

  5. Donchi 03/18/2012 at 6:50 pm #

    He’s white? Then Obama is White, too. The shooter is a minority.

    • Katie O. 03/18/2012 at 8:57 pm #

      Please see my other responses. Additionally, in NO world does Obama benefit from white privilege. In our society’s eyes and the way we perceive skin color, despite Obama’s mixed heritage, he is seen as a Black man. There’s no getting around that. Obama identifies as Black and he is only seen as Black. Zimmerman, on the other hand, looks like a white man and therefore benefits from white privilege. Which is why he is still free and the police department did not charge him with murder. Had Zimmerman been Black or visibly a minority, he would have been charged instantly, make no mistake.

      • Jeanne 03/28/2012 at 3:57 pm #

        Exactly, Obama has NEVER profited from the White half of his heritage. He is the first president to be hounded by birther conspiracies, and people carrying signs that they want their country back. The various Tea Party factions came into being when he was elected and the frightening vision of them walking around with loaded guns & assault rifles at Town Hall meetings which the president was attending while marching around with racist signs — I seriously didn’t think he would live for his whole term. We had Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) scream, “You lie!,” at the president during a speech in front of a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives — I have never heard anything so disrespectful by a member of Congress. He is the butt of countless racist emails from GOP lawmakers in every part of the country. It has been heartbreaking to watch the all this unfold after we thought that America had turned a corner by electing him.

        • Katie O. 04/02/2012 at 1:47 pm #

          Exactly! I can’t understand what people are thinking when they try to assert that Obama benefits from white privilege. Joe Wilson screaming “You lie!” was appalling, and something that would NEVER have happened to ANY white president, because Wilson (a white man), respects any other white man more than the President of the United States.

          I really appreciate your last sentence too, people consistently claim we are in a “post-racial” society because of Obama’s election. But clearly they have not paid ANY attention to what Obama has has to deal with since his election. The amount of purely racist vitriol, threats, and white supremacist movements against him (the Tea Party) that has been leveled at the President is a CLEAR indicator that in no way are we “post-racial” America, whatsoever.

  6. brenda willis 03/19/2012 at 6:20 pm #

    i know this is wrong what that white man did he will get away with this because they dont respect black people this not fair white people can do whatever they want and nothing happen to them but black people cant let a black man kill a white boy they would lock him up a throw away the key this is a white man world no black allow this suck i hope this man pay for what he did this killing this young man i hope he rot in jail forever.

  7. Carlos Morales 03/19/2012 at 10:31 pm #

    Anyone who leaves comments like Mike Jones and Donchi are idiots and need to think of what they are trying to argue! It is clear as day and you fail to see! It doesnt matter if Zimmerman is or is’t white, the race issue is about the “white police” on the scene that is letting him get away with! I am latino and still think Zimmerman is a piece of sh#@! I love white people just much as I love blacks or even my own people, but the facts are put out ther a lot of whites (not all) argue about the “race card” because you have no other arguement. Call it the race card or whatever you want, but that mother f$#@er needs to rot in jail at the very least!

    • Katie O. 03/19/2012 at 10:38 pm #

      I totally agree. It’s about the white police and the fact that Trayvon Martin is Black so they didn’t bother arresting or charging his murderer. The Sanford police department has a history of not prosecuting or belatedly prosecuting crimes against Black individuals (more info on that here: http://motherjones.com/politics/2012/03/what-happened-trayvon-martin-explained#update). No one can say that there is no pattern of letting white people get away with harming Black people here. And I agree that people just pull out the “race card” argument when they have nothing else. But to people who say that, I’d say who’s playing the race card… the people who want justice for a young man that was murdered simply because of his race and racial stereotypes that paint Black males as suspicious and dangerous? Or those who are blind to the fact that they have privilege in society and therefore deny that race matters at all. I totally agree that Zimmerman needs to be imprisoned for life, but the scary thing is, according to an article I cited (I can’t remember which one), he’s disconnected his phone and moved. People apparently don’t know where he is! And the police department won’t do shit about it.

  8. Socialist Rose 03/20/2012 at 4:04 am #

    Reblogged this on karenasmyers and commented:
    Racism is alive and well AND KILLING OUR CHILDREN WITHOUT ANY RECOURSE! IT’S TIME TO ORGANIZE EVERYWHERE (LIKE OWS?) AND GET SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVING AGAIN! I feel like I’m living through the 1970′s again.

  9. thecynic1000 03/20/2012 at 3:44 pm #

    What is a Black Life Worth?
    20 Mar

    They got me mobbin like i’m loked and ready to get my slug on, I load my clip and slip my muthafucking gloves on.

    -Tupac Shakur “Pain“

    With racial profiling still running awry on all ends, and with blacks making up the majority of those who cant get a decent jobs, you also have a tragedy such as the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch kook Mike Zimmerman. This has literally outraged me and taken me a little out of my character but I ask this question. Can I provoke someone to a fight and legally kill them? If so this country should put on their black dresses because next its going to be them or their children in privileged America. The police dispatcher was thinking as speaking clearly telling the idiot watchman to stay in the car and not pursue the 17 year old, but you can tell in George Zimmerman’s voice that he was gunning for and looking to confront the young boy. I don’t say this lightly, he was looking for the confrontation and he knew he was armed. with a 9mm handgun and Trayvon a can of tea and Skittles. This is really sets us back as a country and throws up in the face of those who are oblivious to the underlying racism, profiling, and discrimination in this country and say it doesn’t exist. Every thing about this incident and even more painful the handling by the Sanford Police department absolutely stinks to me. I even have a slight problem with the woman ho made the 911 call during the confrontation who did nothing while someone was screaming and then murdered right on spot. Trayvon was screaming not to be shot! Could she have done more, absolutely, but through fear she was rendered ineffective and now a mother isn’t going to see her son have children or see him smile again.This country needs spiritual healing, as the Lord Jesus teaches us to be selfless and to stomp out oppression where it lies. We need more church activity,support and leadership or else we are headed for a very bad turn were our civil stability is compromised and we cant survive that way.How much is a black life worth? As much as anyone else that God placed on this green earth. They don’ want blacks and minorities taking matters into their own hands(Again). I will be keeping a close watch on this case and praying for justice. With much sorrow I’m heading to the pan shop and getting a bigger gun. God Bless

  10. joe p 03/21/2012 at 2:32 pm #

    dude dont look white to me looks spanish or whatever but neway the boy came over to the man and asked why he is followin him or whatever so how do u know he didnt act like he has something tryin to be tough and scare him off or whatever..yes a sad story but if it was a white kid getin shot wouldnt be this much attention surrounding this story…a white man drives through a city neighborhood to go to the courthouse to fight a ticket he recently got and gets pulled over by a black cop and get locked up for loiterin on his way to court but never heard that one or the white girl walkin home from work in a so called black neighborhood and gets shot in the face and thrown in the dumpster but nothing was said about that so chill with this race ppl just want something to talk or complain about …how do we know the boys didnt act like he was pullin something out…kids these days all wanna be a gangsta like the music thats out there…no im not white im mixed so cant use that one…

    • Katie O. 03/21/2012 at 5:03 pm #

      First, please see the links I provided for the “he’s not white” thing.

      Second, Trayvon Martin felt threatened. That much is clear from the last phone call he ever had with his girlfriend (http://www.mediaite.com/tv/trayvon-martin-attorney-press-conference-phone-logs-completely-connect-the-dots/). Here’s what that article says: “Crump said George Zimmerman’s claim that Martin was suspicious and up to no good ‘is completely contradicted by this phone log, showing all day he was just talking to his friends’ — like so many teenagers do. Martin was talking to her when he went to the 7/11 and when he came back and ‘her testimony connects the dots, completely connects the dots of this whole thing,’ Crump said.” So we know that he wasn’t acting aggressive (in fact he was acting in self-defense) because of phone records that indicate that he was on the phone when Zimmerman started to follow him. We know that Trayvon was not the aggressor because of the calls to 911 witnesses made about the incident (http://motherjones.com/politics/2012/03/what-happened-trayvon-martin-explained).He pulled up his hoodie because someone was following him. For no reason except that he’s Black.

      Third, you hear about violence against white people all the time– see: Missing White Woman Syndrome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missing_white_woman_syndrome). There is a disproportionate amount of coverage when white individuals are killed or go missing versus Black people. If you look at the proportions on death row, 74% of the victims of death row cases are white people, even though white people only make up 50% of murder victims. White people get justice. Whereas Black individuals are disproportionately likely to be arrested (for drugs for example, though white people are more likely to be drug users), disproportionately likely to be in jail, disproportionately likely to be on death row. Clearly the system serves white individuals and it penalizes people of color, and that’s not acceptable. And that’s what’s happening here. The system is letting a murderer free, without even really questioning him and actually feeding him a story, because the victim was a person of color.

  11. paula flowers 04/02/2012 at 1:39 pm #

    I’m white and I agree there is white priviledge. I lived through the 60′s and know everyday of my life it exists. GZ murdered this kid and I beleive he was steeped in the laws and knew exactly what he was doing. Apparently, standing your ground flies and fighing for your life does not. This is a sad state of affairs when people can not connect the dots and see between the lines. There is only one eye witness to the start of the account and that is GZ. The other one is DEAD. If he gets away with it, I say he and his family will have hell to pay. The disenfranchisment, wrong doing to black people in America was not that long ago and still goes on.

    • Katie O. 04/02/2012 at 1:43 pm #

      Thank you for your comment! It has been disheartening to see the number of privilege-denying comments I have received for this blog post. And I think you’re absolutely right to point out that George Zimmerman is the only one who really knows what happened (although there were other witnesses, and according to experts the cries for help on the 911 tapes are from Trayvon Martin, not Zimmerman), and that he is still alive. I’m not quite sure why that is so difficult to grasp. And now conservatives and white supremacists are going on this major smear campaign against Trayvon Martin, as if him smoking weed was enough to get him shot. (What teenager hasn’t smoked weed?)

      You’re also right that it’s upsetting when people can’t use basic critical thinking skills to understand what happened, and aren’t able to connect that to our culture of white supremacy.

  12. David Hovgaard 07/14/2013 at 2:53 am #

    While I agree that we live in a racist society and that Zimmerman is a killer I don’t agree that it is only black men that are stigmatized by the rich white assholes that run this society. As a white man that has been repeatedly harassed by the police I can tell you that while race is the characteristic most often used to discriminate economic status is also used to justify mistreatment by the authorities.

    The rich in this country fear and loath people of color and people of limited means. They have no problem exploiting these people however just as Gorge Zimmerman had no problem killing a child and then beating himself up to justify his crime. This man showed no remorse for his crime similar to those that exploit or even kill others for profit both here and abroad.

    This countries real problem is the fact that the rule of law only applies to the poor and the disadvantaged the rich like Zimmerman are rarely troubled by the law. It is time that we reinstated the rule of law and while a jury of scared women let a criminal go today because the prosecution sabotaged their own case the federal government can step in and see justice done just as they did when the KKK once held sway in the southern part of these united states.

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