Sunday, May 20, 2018
Human Interest

Craig Pittman: What 'cracker' really means

Along with its most popular exports — citrus, sunburns and tacky tattoos — Florida produces a seemingly inexhaustible supply of courtroom drama for the astonished consumption of the rest of the country. Just think how many people tuned in to watch every twist and turn in Casey Anthony's murder trial, Elián González's custody case, William Kennedy Smith's rape trial and the 2000 election.

Florida's courts are a never-ending source of jaw-dropping scenes you'd never believe if they showed up on Law & Order — for instance, that time when serial killer Ted Bundy was defending himself and asked a witness on the stand to marry him.

Right now we're getting breathless TV and Twitter reports from the trial of wannabe neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, charged with murder in the death of passing pedestrian Trayvon Martin. I mention this because prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel testified that shortly before Zimmerman killed him, Martin told her on the phone that he was being followed by some "creepy-ass cracker."

That set off a flurry of discussion and debate about the word cracker and whether it was a racial slur. Florida resident Rush Limbaugh weighed in, and there was a whole column on Mediaite about how " 'Cracker' Means Something Entirely Different in Florida: A Source of 'Pride.' "

To which my first reaction was to quote the legendary Inigo Montoya: "I don't think that word means what you think it means."

Let me break it down for you. If you are white and you grew up in Florida and you can trace your ancestry here back to the rawboned pioneers who braved the heat and skeeters and snakes and gators to establish the earliest farms and cattle ranches and settlements, then yes, you can call yourself a cracker, and it might be a point of pride to do so.

There is a breed of cattle and a restaurant and a state fair attraction and even a type of beer that are called "cracker," all taking advantage of the sense of authenticity offered by that term.

However, while there were plenty of black pioneers who helped settle Florida and black cowboys who worked those early ranches, you will search in vain for any black people from Florida who identify themselves by that term. That's understandable, given what some crackers did to them at such places as Rosewood and Groveland.

So when Trayvon Martin, who was black, referred to George Zimmerman, a light-skinned Hispanic, as a "cracker," did he mean it in the "hey, look, it's a son of the pioneers!" way? Given that the term was modified by the adjective "creepy-ass," I would have to say no.

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian and an award-winning reporter who covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. He wrote this column for Slate.

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