Definitions of race cloud case of black teen's shooting

Published March 21 2012
Updated March 21 2012

Trayvon Martin was black.

George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old who shot and killed the 17-year-old late last month in Sanford, is … what?

He has been described by the many different news organizations covering the case in a variety of different ways: white, Hispanic, white and Hispanic. All true. The most recent assessment from the Associated Press? Police call him white. His family says he's Hispanic. Again, not wrong.

In a written statement to the Orlando Sentinel, Zimmerman's father sought to accentuate his son's Hispanic ethnicity: "George is a Spanish speaking minority with many black family members and friends. He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever."

The first sentence doesn't necessarily lead to the second, of course, but this declaration from the family is important. Why? Quick explainer: "Hispanic" is not a race. It's not an option in the race question in the census. It's an ethnicity question. And the census says you're Hispanic if you say you are.

The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington works the same way. "If you self-identify as Hispanic," associate director Mark Hugo Lopez said Tuesday, "we identify you as Hispanic."

George Zimmerman has a white father and a Hispanic mother. He calls himself Hispanic on his driver's license. He calls himself Hispanic on his voter registration card. He married a white woman.

What does all this mean?

On Tuesday, Elahe Izadi, a public radio reporter in Washington, D.C. who covers race and politics, wrote a blog post called "Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman And Beyond Black And White."

In a phone interview, she made three points worth considering as this story rages forward:

1. "The race of Zimmerman is relevant. The race of Trayvon is relevant."

2. "There's the question of how a person self-identifies. And there's the question of how society identifies you."

3. "Being a person of color doesn't preclude racially profiling someone else."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.