A week after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin, the backlash continues, with nationwide protests and calls to boycott Florida. President Obama spoke some undeniable truths when he noted that the African-American community’s reaction must be seen in the context of a long, terrible history of racism. But there is another context too: that of an ideology-based, media-driven false narrative that has distorted a tragedy into a racist outrage.
This narrative has transformed Zimmerman, a man of racially mixed heritage that included white, Hispanic and black roots (a grandmother who helped raise him had an Afro-Peruvian father), into an honorary white male steeped in white privilege. It has cast him as a virulent racist even though he once had a black business partner, mentored African-American kids, lived in a neighborhood about 20 percent black, and participated in complaints about a white police lieutenant’s son getting away with beating a homeless black man.
This narrative has perpetuated the lie that Zimmerman’s history of calls to the police indicates obsessive racial paranoia. Thus, discussing the verdict on the PBS NewsHour, University of Connecticut professor and New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb asserted that “Zimmerman had called the police 46 times in previous six years, only for African-Americans, only for African-American men.” Actually, only six calls—two of them about Trayvon Martin—had to do with African-American men. At least three involved complaints about whites; others were about such issues as a fire alarm going off, a reckless driver of unknown race, or an aggressive dog.