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Deggans: She failed at 'code switching'

Jeantel showed the gulf between a poor black girl and an arcane legal system.

Jeantel showed the gulf between a poor black girl and an arcane legal system.

As the media world debates the impact of star witness Rachel Jeantel on the murder trial of George Zimmerman, it seems obvious that the 19-year-old friend of shooting victim Trayvon Martin stumbled over one of the biggest issues few people talk about when giving opinions on the case: the supreme challenge of "code switching" on a national stage.

Jeantel, revealed last week as the woman on the phone with Martin just before his fatal fight with Zimmerman, is one of the few people connected to the case who wasn't swept up in the tsunami of media coverage last year, centered on the case of an unarmed black teen shot dead by neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman in Sanford.

One reason was because of a lie: She admitted falsely telling Martin's lawyer and family she was 16 last year, to keep her name out of the spotlight by claiming she was a minor. All that maneuver did, however, was delay the inevitable. And as her face and demeanor were revealed to the world over the past few days, Jeantel's difficulty in carrying herself the way mainstream pundits and legal experts expected was painfully apparent.

She mumbled. She spoke in a jumble of words and phrases that other attorneys and even the mostly white jury couldn't understand. She had to admit she dictated a letter supposedly written by her and sent to Martin's mother describing the night of his death.

And that admission came in the most painful way: Jeantel admitted she couldn't read the letter's cursive writing. (CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer called the moment "humiliating," but a friend who is an adjunct teacher at the University of Tampa said many of her students can't read cursive either.)

Such shortcomings may not have meant much among her friends or in Jeantel's neighborhood, where she was raised in a Haitian family, learning Creole and Spanish before English. But Jeantel proved horribly bad at "code switching," or communicating with people outside her friends, family and culture, where her style of talking, phrases and dress might not be understood or valued.

Small wonder legal experts and cable TV news commentators chewed into her performance, with two different talking heads on HLN's After Dark show pronouncing her a "train wreck," "churlish" and "acrimonious."

Besides admitting she lied when she said she skipped Martin's funeral because she was in the hospital and admitting she may have softened her statements to prosecutors because she spoke in the presence of Martin's mother, Jeantel also admitted her friend called Zimmerman a "creepy-ass cracker" and later said "the n---- is behind me" while trying to figure out why he was following him.

Zimmerman's attorney pounced, accusing Martin of bringing race into the confrontation first (how that happens through a comment made that Zimmerman couldn't hear to someone who wasn't at the scene, I'm not totally sure). But Jeantel responded that "cracker" was a term people used in her community, sparking another round of questions online about whether "cracker" is even a racial slur.

But what so much of this really revealed was the gulf between middle-age, middle-class, mainstream codes of behavior and life among youth from poorer, nonwhite neighborhoods. A national TV audience saw up close the gulf between a poor black girl and a dense and arcane legal system, where white lawyers speak in ten-dollar words based on the dead language of Latin. They couldn't have been further apart if Jeantel were born on the moon.

This is a question that has hovered over the Trayvon Martin shooting since the story burst onto the national stage more than a year ago.

As each side on this murder trial tries to prove the other person had tendencies toward prejudice and violence that may have sparked the fight, how will jurors judge the difference between edgy culture and outright dysfunction?

Last year, conservative media outlets such as the Daily Caller dug into the 17-year-old's closed social media accounts, discovering that his Twitter handle was NO_LIMIT_N---- and that he often sent messages filled with profanity and sexual references.

On Thursday, The Smoking Gun subjected Jeantel to similar treatment, detailing how her Twitter account was scrubbed of messages referring "to drinking, smoking and getting high. She also made references to Martin's death, referred to acquaintances as 'b----' and 'n----,' and wrote about having 'jackass lawyers on my ass.' " She also had a picture tagged "court nails," showing off a new manicure.

So is this stuff the code of youths growing up in a tough neighborhood, or the language of violence-prone "thugs" who may have deserved law enforcement attention?

Those questions arose weeks ago, when Zimmerman's lawyers astutely posted more photos from Martin's phone and social media accounts on their website, creating more stories on the teen's passion for photos with guns and marijuana plants, flipping off the camera.

If Jeantel had more experience navigating these two worlds — the culture she lives in and the straightlaced world of lawyers, jurors and TV commentators — she might have avoided some of the worst embarrassments of her testimony, including long stretches where everyone in the court said they could not understand her.

Predictably, social media has piled up with smug comments on her appearance and demeanor, including one MSN commenter, who wrote: "If you want to be taken seriously, you have to behave in such a way that people will take you seriously."

But which culture decides what constitutes such behavior? And if you don't know that code for that culture, is it fair that you're not taken seriously in a court of law?

Scary to think that, in the end, the verdict on whether Zimmerman murdered Martin may come down to how well the dead teen's friends and family can speak to mainstream America.

Deggans: She failed at 'code switching' 06/29/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 6:51pm]
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