George Zimmerman and the Tragedy of Casual Racism

George Zimmerman face

The tragedy of George Zimmerman is that he probably really did feel threatened by a 17-year-old black man wearing a hoodie, walking through his neighborhood.

At its most banal retelling, George Zimmerman was a passably inept member of his neighborhood watch who thought it was suspicious that a dark-skinned teenager would be in the area, walking calmly through the rain. He stalked this man, was confronted by this man, and this resulted in George’s gun going off at close range, killing Trayvon Martin.

Media and the public at large are furious that Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges, but trying Zimmerman for murder now in a federal court with hate-crime statutes attached is not really going to make anyone but Trayvon’s family feel better. It does not guarantee that actual racists will think twice before casually murdering anyone and then relying on “good ol’ boy” regional politics to claim self-defense.

George Zimmerman is actually proof that our society is evolving to hold its members to an ethical standard higher than the bare minimum of the law.

By all accounts, George handled his situation…badly. Let’s just say that. He unnecessarily engaged in pursuit of a “suspect,” entered what he believed to be a dangerous situation against police advice, and then failed to identify himself while accusing the victim in a generic and contextually racist (in hindsight) manner. George Zimmerman was something of an idiot.

I think that’s a fair judgement to apply.

But, George Zimmerman did not commit a hate-crime—he did not seek to murder a young black man, at least as far as anyone involved in the case can really discern. He was, for all the condescension the phrase lends, playing cops and robbers like a fucking child.

I mean to be profane. I’m sorry, but the case calls for such. It is profane that a grown man who claims to suffer from Adult ADHD and require medication to remember things such as the street he lives on can acquire a firearm, or that he be allowed to join even an amateur, volunteer organization dedicated to safety. It is profane that he has come to perceive through media and social stigma a black man in a hooded sweatshirt as “suspicious” for his neighborhood.


I will now stoop to prove a point:

George Zimmerman is half Peruvian, that half being one-quarter African-Peruvian. His father is German Catholic. He is a registered Democrat. A 28-year-old Afro-Hispanic Democrat thought that a sweatshirt makes a black man suspicious enough to warrant investigation for recent burglaries. This is a simplification, but the disgusting fact is not by much.

George Zimmerman might have watched a lot of Law & Order, or The Wire, or Saved By the Bell for all we know. For whatever reason, this man thought another man was behaving suspiciously at the very best because he was out looking to find people behaving suspiciously, at the worst because Trayvon’s being black was suspicious enough.

George Zimmerman did behave like a racist when he profiled Trayvon Martin as “up to no good.” He internalized every image of gangbangers or hoodlums or early ’90s gangster rappers and he broadened that imagery to include a young black man when he assigned himself the role of a police officer.

That we as a public want George tried in a federal court after a jury found his actions to fall short of either second-degree murder (intentional) or manslaughter (even involuntary), shows that we are “uncomfortable” with this outcome, to say the least. Many wish him tried because they feel his racial profile led to the encounter which escalated into (in)voluntary manslaughter. Others will demand a retrial on grounds that the prosecution handled its case badly, or that local law enforcement was less than equal in the pursuit of justice.

Yet, I’m pretty sure a great deal of this unrest lies in the nagging feeling that we have perpetuated even now a culture of casual racism and its acceptance that could allow an event such as the ending of Trayvon Martin’s life.

  • The idea that “urban” means “Angry Black Man in Flashy Clothes.”
  • The idea that “gangbanger” has any real meaning outside the most destitute, war-torn ghettos of American metropolises.
  • The idea that—let’s just say it—black people are criminals. Violent criminals. That white men are gentlemen thieves stacking banking regulations against themselves, but anyone of relatively-recent African descent is automatically predisposed to acts of base ignorance, cruelty, inconsideration, and physical damage.

Trayvon Martin’s death was not a murder, though that would leave us all more settled, having a wrong, racist, vile murderer to condemn as out-of-step with the rest of us. If his death was not a crime by the letter of the law, then that means we—as a progressive and just society—have allowed social perceptions to skew so terribly and so covertly that a hate crime can be committed in our eyes by accident.

The tragedy of Trayvon Martin was his horrible death. The tragedy of George Zimmerman is that he really was doing what he thought was right, and it was all legal.

-This article was originally published here, and is being reprinted with permission from the author.

-Photo: Associated Press

About David Zucker

David E Zucker is a malnourished, though not yet technically starving writer living just outside of New York City. He was raised by Saturday morning cartoons and near-feral cats, but is otherwise a pretty sweet guy once you get to know him. His daily ramblings are posted at


  1. Thoughtful and well-presented.

  2. I really have to ask, is there something you read which indicated that Trayvons body language didn’t tip him off? Was he skulking around like a typical criminal would or was he walking like a normal person cept he had a hoodie? I realize it’s very popular to jump the conclusion that this is a black man in a hoodie so people assume he’s up to no good, but is it POSSIBLE that he was actually acting suspicious?

    I realize that playing cops n robbers is a bad idea, but do the police actually do their job around there? What is the culture n crime-rate like? Do the citizens feel they need to take the law into their hands and confront the potential criminals like Zimmerman did? My question is why he felt the need to intervene? Where I live I feel no need to intervene because our police do a pretty good job but I am in Australia and it seems a bit diff here, which I am thankful for, but if the police are doing a shitty job then I could see why vigilante actions or community policing would occur.

    • Archy –
      In Zimmerman’s call to the police, he described Martin as being suspicious because he was somehow both looking around at the houses and walking calmly, not trying to get out of the rain. Multiple explanations could arise for the former–that staying with his father temporarily he was unfamiliar with the exact area, or that while on the phone with his friend he commented repeatedly about being followed. The latter seems as simple as the relatively low severity of the weather and that he was in his own neighborhood, feeling no need to rush at first, but that’s all entirely speculative.

      Much of the problem revolves around the defendant’s motivations. He was part of a neighborhood watch group but seems to have made some fairly poor decisions in how to handle that responsibility. There had been some burglaries in recent weeks, so he was out looking for anything suspicious. My concern is that without sufficient training, an underqualified civilian armed himself and went literally looking for trouble. While that’s not smart in general, the problem only arises from the notion that he seems to have genuinely suspected Trayvon without any judicially justifiable cause. The confrontation, escalation, and death of a young man unfortunately fall within the confines of Florida state law, making the failure of judgement not a criminal offense, but a social one.

      Thanks for joining the discussion! Thoughts?

      • What proof do you have that George was looking for trouble? as far as the case is concerned he was on the way home when he saw Trayvon not on a patrol.

        Its a fact that humans who know of a danger in the area are more likely to look out for it, same as when theres a kidnapping parents will keep there children indoors and be suspicious of strangers.

        The issue is that you missed out Trayvon’s profiling and racist comments against Zimmerman, the evidence of the case suggests George was attacked by Trayvon not the other way around. The moment that first punch connected was the first illegal action of the night, following anyone isnt illegal, especially while on the phone to the police but punching someone you think is a creepy ass cracka is both racist and shows Trayvon profiled George himself…

        Also Trayvon had escaped Georges sight and had over 2 minutes to get home but instead waited for George to come around the corner before attacking him, why did you ignore this and not say that Trayvon made a stupid mistake as well? George is on the phone for over 2 minutes with the police after trayvon has escaped but instead of running 15 seconds down the road to get home he hides then confronts George, punches him and attacks him while hes on the ground.

        Thats self defense, if Trayvon had not committed that illegal crime after stupidly refusing to get out of danger then none of this would have happened, If he had kept going George would have lost him and the police would have arrived and taken over.

        Its unfair to Judge one side without considering the stupidity of the other, and in this case Trayvon is the aggressor, George following him doesn’t give him the right to attack him especially if he had lost him and then himself hunted George down.

  3. I agree that it was not a hate crime. I’ve always said how can a man of color hate another man of color. Not to say that it couldn’t happen but to me it just doesn’t make sense. Your comments about his ADHD are discriminatory. I have ADHD and although I’ve never forgotten what my street address is, ADDers for the most part have bad short term memory. It’s just part of the symptoms of having it. In no way should be a reason not to be able to own a gun or join a volunteer organization. I fail to see how a person who is very impulsive, short attention span and bad short term memory poses a risk in such organizations. Hyperactivity goes away as a person gets older. I’m 34 and people don’t know I’m ADD until I tell them. Some are pretty surprised when I do tell them. It’s not what the media has made it out to be.

    • “I fail to see how a person who is very impulsive, short attention span and bad short term memory poses a risk in such organizations.”


      • Yeah seriously! Like I said I’m ADD and I wouldn’t consider myself any more dangerous than a non ADDer with a gun.

        • To me, having any armed and unvetted people roaming the streets as part of a badly-regulated militia is a bad idea, but if for some reason, such a militia has to exist, a person who is known to be impulsive and easily distracted is less likely to behave in the restrained and attentive way necessary to avoid tragic incidents like this one.

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