Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman: Black and Hispanic Relations


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Trayvon Martin's death led to marches for justice, and increased racial tension. Image by werthmedia.

Trayvon Martin’s death led to marches for justice. Image by werthmedia.

George Zimmerman’s trial in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin is the culmination of a long, racially and politically divided cultural conflict.

According to National Public Radio’s Gene Demby, “…criminal cases — and the Zimmerman trial, in particular — are lousy proxies for fights over big, messy social issues.”

From the start, some insisted Zimmerman, Hispanic, attacked Martin, who is black, because of racial prejudice.  CNN reported a possible racial slur on the 911 tape, although noting in the end, the phrase used by Zimmerman was identified as ““f-ing punks” rather than a racial slur.

Research on Tensions Between Blacks and Hispanics

While Zimmerman may have been motivated by racial prejudice, social science research indicates that, at least before the trial, black Americans and Hispanic Americans did not  believe as much tension existed between the groups as white Americans reported between the groups.

According to Gallup’s Minority Rights and Relations survey taken in 2008, 60% of Hispanics believed Non-Hispanic black-Hispanic relations were good and 67% of  Non-Hispanic blacks reported good relations with Hispanics.  Whites, however, were evenly split 43% to 43% on whether the relations between the groups were “Good” or “Bad.”

Huh?  Why would whites portray minorities as having worse relations between groups than the minorities themselves report?

Racial Tension: Divide and Conquer

If you are cynical enough, the answer may be because, consciously or unconsciously, whites are using a type of “divide and conquer” thinking.  Dr. Terrance Fitzgerald writes in the Racism Review that Asian Americans have been viewed as the “model minority” when competing against Mexican workers.  Black women, he notes, have been pitted against black males for resources like education, and called the “new model minority” by some.

According to Andrew Chin, who writes for Model Minority, a website dedicated to empowering Asians, the term “model minority”  was first used by sociologist William Peterson in 1966. Chin says, “Peterson concluded that Japanese culture with its family values and strong work ethic enabled the Japanese Americans to overcome prejudice and to avoid becoming a “problem minority.” ”

Racial Divides

Seeing the world as black against white, or in the case of Martin and Zimmerman, black against brown, is destructive to the fabric of democracy.  As Fitzgerald concluded, “We have to point out what this divisive tactic is to the world—destructive.”

Trayvon Martin’s death is tragic enough, it is lesson enough, without using it as fodder to increase tensions between minorities.


CNN. Lawyers: Zimmerman whispered ‘punks’ before shooting Trayvon Martin.  (2012). Accessed July 10, 2013

Demby, G. One Trayvon Martin Case, But Two Very Different Trials.  NPR: Code Switch. (2013) Accessed July 10, 2013.

Fitzgerald, T. Divide and Conquer: The New Model Minority. Racism Review. (2011).

Saad, L. Whites May Exaggerate Black-Hispanic Tensions. Gallup. (2008). Accessed July 10, 2013.

Chin, A. A Brief History of the ”Model Minority” Stereotype. (2001). Model Minority. Accessed July 11, 2013.

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