The shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has seen the media at its sensationalist worst. Press reports have cast Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, as a trigger-happy vigilante looking to make trouble where there was none. Attached to this storyline has been the charged subtext that Zimmerman acted out of racial prejudice, confronting Martin simply because the latter was black. Not surprisingly, this media-made version of the shooting has roiled racial passions across the country, turning a tragedy into a referendum on American race relations and setting up one of the most polarizing legal cases in recent history. But there is in fact far more to the story, as a recent Reuters’ investigation illuminates.
Reuters‘ report provides a complexity to the story that has been so sorely missing until now. Among other things, it calls into question the notion that white racism was the motivating factor in Martin’s shooting. That narrative was never entirely convincing, and not just because the mixed-race Zimmerman never fit into the media’s neat white-gunman-black-victim allegory. The New York Times‘ designation of Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic” was only the most strained attempt to impose a racial framework on the shooting.
Reuters‘ report muddles the racial element even further. It points out that Zimmerman was not only half-Hispanic but he also had black roots, tracing back to his Afro-Peruvian great grandfather on his mother’s side. So far from harboring anti-black racial resentments, he appears to have sought out the company of black friends and colleagues. In 2004, for instance, Zimmerman, an insurance agent, teamed up with a black friend to start up an insurance office.
Even more significant, perhaps, Reuters’ report makes clear that much of the media has simply failed to present the context in which the shooting took place. Yet that context is critical to understanding, if not justifying, why the shooting happened as it did. One would never suspect if from most media accounts, but Zimmerman had good reason to be suspicious of an unknown young black man walking through his neighborhood – and racism had nothing to do with it.