How Academe Turned Zimmerman into a Racist

Jul 24, 2013 |  Peter Wood

Font Size  


How Academe Turned Zimmerman into a Racist

Jul 24, 2013 | 

Peter Wood

I first heard of Trayvon Martin via a posted comment on an article I had written for the Chronicle of Higher Education in early March 2012. In retrospect that seems significant. The comment from some anonymous academic came a few days after the shooting and a month before President Obama observed in a Rose Garden talk, “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” In fact, academics from the start helped to drive the polarizing racial narrative that became inseparable from the Trayvon Martin case. And in the aftermath of the not-guilty verdict, academics have continued the effort to poison public opinion. 

Margaret Burnham, a professor of law at Northeastern University, for example, called the verdict “unreliable and unfair,” cited Zimmerman for “racial profiling,” faulted the local police investigation, criticized the “stand your ground law” (although it played no role in the trial), and compared the case to the Emmett Till lynching and other gross miscarriages of justice from the 1930s and 1940s. Burnham explains:

Race explains the results, which is not to say any single actor bore animus toward Trayvon Martin, but to recognize that had he not been a black male he would likely be alive today. That makes the Zimmerman case painfully and eerily familiar to those of us who study civil rights legal history.

Burnham provides what amounts to the finished draft of the fable that my Chronicle commenter had only begun to assemble. The comment itself has disappeared into the ether, but as best I can recall it, the writer was attempting to score the point that America is a profoundly racist society. He wrote in high academic dudgeon to the effect of, ‘Don’t speak to me of American values. A society in which this takes place is rotten to the core.’ 

The narrative that quickly took shape was that of a white guy stalking and then shooting down a black teenager in cold-blood, and the police haplessly doing nothing. Their failure to arrest the perpetrator, George Zimmerman, on the spot, was the ingredient that turned an ordinary homicide into an indictment of America. Racial injustice was once again unfolding according to a well-known script. 

The Script

That view of what happened, of course, still has many partisans, not least President Obama, as well as a wide swath of the nation’s media. But let’s keep the professoriate’s role in focus. The academy has been profoundly complicit with the promotion of a mistaken and socially destructive framing of Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. The sheer number of statements by academics is far too large to permit anything like a comprehensive summary, but we can look at some representative examples:

Claire Potter, professor of history at the New School for Public Engagement, wrote on the Chronicle’s “Tenured Radical” blog, “At Tenured Radical we, like so many others, are appalled and heartbroken at last night’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in [the] murder of Trayvon Martin. Between Shelby v. Holder and this travesty, it feels like we are spinning back in time.” She provided links to help readers “to find a rally or Trayvon Martin protest near you.” 

Michele Goodwin, professor of law at the University of Minnesota, writing on another Chronicle blog, “Brainstorm,” gave a version of the false but widely repeated narrative back in March 2012: “a white male” who “stalked the youth” and “gunned him down.” She also attributes to Zimmerman (falsely) a racial epithet he supposedly made in speaking to the 911 dispatcher, and makes the “screams for help”--which witnesses say were Zimmerman’s--into “Martin’s last words.” 

Rutledge M. Dennis, professor of sociology at George Mason University, is offering a course “Plessy to Martin: Race and Politics,” which looks at the Martin case in the context of “how racial and cultural politics were driving forces in the public debates and controversies surrounding such cases as the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama, Robert Williams in North Carolina, Emmett Till in Mississippi, Medgar Evers in Mississippi, Martin Luther King in Georgia...” 

Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of history at UCLA, likewise depicts Martin as a racial victim: “the defense consistently employed racial stereotypes and played on racial knowledge to turn the victim into the predator and the predator into the victim.” He proceeds into a roll call of victims of racial injustice:

The verdict did not surprise me, or most people I know, because we’ve been here before. We were here with Latasha Harlins and Rodney King, with Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart. We were here with Anthony Baez, Michael Wayne Clark, Julio Nunez, Maria Rivas, Mohammed Assassa.

The list continues with dozens more.

But let’s pause with the examples and consider the script itself. The trope, of course, is that black suspects are mercilessly hounded, even if they are innocent; and white suspects stroll free, even if they are self-evidently guilty. It is plainly true that both things have happened in our recorded history. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they still happen, though we are long past the point where they are common or that they go unremarked or that they are allowed to stand if exposed to the light of day. Still the collective memory of this sort of racial injustice is so powerful that it can blind us to the facts at hand. 

The Trayvon Martin shooting just isn’t a very good fit with the racial injustice narrative. Martin was not a poor put-upon innocent; Zimmerman was a man of mixed race, living in an integrated neighborhood, and possessed of a life history that contained only friendly relations with blacks. And both the police and the jury believed he acted in genuine self-defense. The narrative of the white neighborhood watch guy gunning down in cold blood the innocent child who went out to buy Skittles didn’t stand up to facts. 

Academics in our post-modern age, however, are rarely daunted by facts. When the facts get in the way of a good narrative, the narrative tends to win. What’s going on?

From Zanzinger to Zimmerman

One way to think of this willingness to let a narrative trump the facts is that it is a victory of poetry over reason. A story retold often enough in an emotionally compelling way becomes “true” even if it isn’t. That heartfelt truth can indeed flatten almost any obstacle, especially if it is rooted in real events. When it comes to instances of blacks unfairly accused and whites getting away with murder, we have both a tragic national history and a poetic consciousness of what happened. 

Bob Dylan, for example, has supplied sound tracks for both scenarios. In “Hurricane,” Dylan sings of a professional boxer, Rubin Carter, who is black and who was railroaded in 1967 for a murder he didn’t commit. And in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a masterpiece of storytelling, Dylan related how “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,” but no one much cared that the rich white guy had beat the black barmaid to death with a cane in February 1963. 

There were plenty of witnesses to Zanzinger’s deed at the white-tie Baltimore Spinsters’ ball. It wasn’t a whodunit. But Zanzinger ended up with only a six-month term in prison for manslaughter. He went on to an appalling life. When he died in 2009, the New York Times obituary recounted Zanzinger’s conviction years later for fraudulently collecting rent from black families “living in shanties he no longer owned,” shanties that “lacked running water, toilets or outhouses.” He paid a $62,000 fine and had to spend two nights in jail for an 18-month suspended sentence. That was in 1991.

One other detail that bears recalling:  Zanzinger harbored bitterness toward Dylan for immortalizing his crime in a song. The Times reported Zanzinger telling a biographer of Dylan, “I should have sued him and put him in jail,” presumably for the songwriter’s altering a few details that intensified Zanzinger’s villainy.

So is Zimmerman the new Zanzinger?  Zimmerman is reportedly suing NBC for doctoring a tape of his 911 call to make it sound like he was racially profiling Martin. A doctored tape isn’t quite the same as a ballad that seared itself into the memory of a generation. But NBC’s depiction of Zimmerman clearly helped advance the racial narrative of what happened on February 26, 2012. 

I am, incidentally, far from alone in noticing the historical resemblance. As far back as April 2012, bloggers were drawing the comparison

Path Dependency

If you arrange the keys on a typewriter one way, they remain that way for generations and for new technologies, such as keyboards, no matter the inconvenience. If you set the width of the railroad tracks at a specific gauge, it too will remain that way seemingly forever. Economists call this “path dependency.” Initial decisions, sometimes intended just as improvised answers to a situation, tend to stay with us.

That can happen with misinformation too. In the early hours of a story, reporters often get things wrong. NPR did a telling round-up of the misinformation reported as news in the early hours following the Newtown shootings. Some of those misstatements are still in circulation. 

One of the misstatements in the Trayvon Martin case wasn’t actually a statement at all. It was the picture of the 17-year-old Martin as a twelve-year-old, which was widely circulated and heightened the sense that Zimmerman had murdered an innocent child. But the most consequential mistake was the report that Zimmerman was “white.” This became amended over time to “white Hispanic,” but the truth was more complicated. Zimmerman is of mixed race, and was raised in a household that included two African-American girls. This had no bearing on the question of whether he had committed a crime in connection with Martin’s death but it has a great deal of bearing on the aptness of the narrative presented by Burnham, Potter, Goodwin, Dennis, Kelley and so many others. In that narrative Zimmerman was “white,” or as Goodwin puts it, a person who “identifies as white,” and that identification was crucial to turning the story into an allegory of racial injustice in modern America.


The Trayvon Martin story has one other crucial element: it is a story meant to inflame. Indignation is a worthy response to real injustice, but indignation can also be a force in its own right. Anger feels empowering, and it can become a kind of mob rule of the emotions over our better judgment. Several years ago I wrote a book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, about our cultural shift from the slow burn to the fast fuse. We Americans over the last half century gradually relinquished our sense that real strength lies in self-control and that anger has to be governed. Instead we became convinced that repressing anger is psychologically damaging and letting it out is empowering. Vituperative anger became not only destigmatized but admired and celebrated. 

In a sense, we now wait around for opportunities to get angry and we have supplied ourselves with an arsenal of occasions in which we are licensed to let loose. Righteous indignation over racial injustice is near the top of the list. 

This applies in nearly all contexts of American life, but higher education holds a special place in that arsenal. Our colleges and universities are the nation’s primary font for racial ressentiment. The American college campus is the place where we accentuate racial division as a matter of policy via preferences in admissions, organization of students into grievance-based groups, and curricula that foreground the narrative of racial oppression as the central story of American history. In this environment, the need to stoke grievance is never-ending, and the opportunity to turn tragic events into fodder for protest is almost irresistible. 

While many have complained that President Obama, the New York Times, and the mainstream media overall have fed the outrage over Zimmerman, the racializing of the Martin killing has deeper roots in academe. After all, President Obama’s own career was in substantial part formed in the context of university-based racial grievance. We had a good reminder of that in March 2012, when some videos of Obama as a Harvard Law student in 1991 came to light, showing him speaking at a rally in support of Derrick Bell, the bombastic law school professor who invented “critical race theory.” And our media are saturated with graduates of college programs who have been thoroughly schooled in the America-is-racist doctrine. The Daily News ran as a cover story a picture of a black hoodie, with a list of black men murdered before Trayvon Martin culminating in the question, “When will it end?” It is the right question, but not as the Daily News intended it. 

So the anger-is-empowering theme and the readiness to grab hold of an event and fit it to the anger narrative is in great part a university invention, supported by a substantial portion of the professoriate who have little to offer other than their commitment to keeping the pot on boil.

The Greater Outrage

But let’s not leave it there. I am thankful for the discernment of the jurors in Florida who heard the case. They saw that the story presented by the prosecution was a very poor match for the evidence. The events of that night in February 2012 remain murky in many details. We ought to grieve that a young man was killed, but that grief shouldn’t be out of proportion with the broader problem. As Will Allen mentioned in the National Review, there were 61 murders in Chicago alone during the Zimmerman trial, 52 of the victims were black, and 43 of them black males. Most died of gunshot wounds. Their lives were no less precious than Martin’s. But their deaths occasioned none of the attention and none of the outrage. The problem is basically that these murders do not fit the narrative of racial injustice. The Bureau of Justice’s special report in 2007 estimated that 93 percent of the murders of black men were committed by other black men. 

The carnage is real and our justice system seems poorly equipped to do anything about it. This is something that scholars and teachers should address. Holding rallies to protest the Zimmerman verdict and competing to see who can express the greatest outrage does nothing to cut the rate at which black men die of bullet wounds. Rather the academic eagerness to advance the racist-white-on-innocent-black narrative of the Martin shooting simply exacerbates the nation’s racial divisions. We can do better.

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on July 23, 2013.


| July 24, 2013 - 3:08 PM

“Race explains the results, which is not to say any single actor bore animus toward Trayvon Martin, but to recognize that had he not been a black male he would likely be alive today.”

Sadly, this is very true.  Had he not grown up in a cultural milieu that accepted (even condoned) thuggish violence, he likely would not have attacked a stranger who turned out to be armed.  Had he not had all of his previous bad behavior excused or punished with, at best, a slap on the wrist, he likely would have learned better behavior.  Had he not been taught that ‘whoop ass’ was what made a man, he might someday have actually become one.

Michael Becker

| July 24, 2013 - 3:30 PM

“But let’s keep the professoriate’s role in focus. The academy has been profoundly complicit with the promotion of a mistaken and socially destructive framing…”

The “professoriate” never misses an opportunity to jump on the “white people are racists” bandwagon.  Recall the Duke Lacrosse case.  Still no apologies from the victim professoriate class for that one.  There won’t be one forthcoming for Zimmerman either.


| July 24, 2013 - 3:56 PM

I suspect that Trayvon, aware of his right to be where he was, contracted a terminal case of self-rightousness of the kind promoted by academia. In this state he believed that he would be quite justified in teaching Zimmerman a lesson by confronting him and doing a “polar bear hunt.” My point being that academia, in promoting the idea that such anger is justified, bares a fair portion of the blame for what ensued.


| July 24, 2013 - 4:16 PM

I find it bizarre that many of those commenting on the Martin shooting, including Obama, pose the “if” scenario—as in “if Martin had been white…” or “if the roles had been reversed…” then the outcome would’ve been different.

This type of speculative analysis strikes me as fantasy. If elements of that tragic night were different, the outcome might be different—is about all one can say, but is banal towards passing a judgment on the jury verdict.

Yet most of those speculating with the if-then formulation can’t even come to grips with the facts of the physical evidence as known. So why is it that these speculative assertions are made with such frequency? Cognitive dissonance runs high…

Michael Becker

| July 24, 2013 - 4:31 PM

If you’d like a real life version of “if Trayvon had been white…” read this:

Rich Rostrom

| July 24, 2013 - 4:45 PM

If Trayvon Martin was was a _white_ punk with a history of petty crime and aspirations to full hoodlum status, who loitered suspiciously aroung the homes of strangers for 45 minutes on a rainy night, and ambushed the Neighborhood Watch member who was trying to track him for the imminent arrival of police - he’d be as dead as Christopher Cervini.

(The unarmed white upstate NY teen shot and killed by a black homeowner, who was acquitted on self-defense.)


| July 24, 2013 - 5:06 PM

If only Zimmerman hadn’t sent that telegram…


| July 24, 2013 - 6:02 PM

If only Zimmerman hadn’t had a black grandparent, and if only he had not voted for Obama.

PacRim Jim

| July 24, 2013 - 6:04 PM

University—> Monoversity


| July 24, 2013 - 6:41 PM

I am so, so sad.

I applaud you, sir, for speaking so calmly and precisely. You have courage I do not have any longer, the groupthink seems so total and reflexive, the emotionality and demagoguery so remorseless.

I applaud you from behind a veil, coward that I have learned to be: they burned yard signs around here that dared to endorse anyone other than Obama/Biden (keep Portland Weird, such an enlightened place)

(And, in other news, Nakoula is still in prison . . . )

I am so, so sad.

Micha Elyi

| July 24, 2013 - 6:46 PM

“if Martin had been white…”

...his record of prior thuggery would have moved him off the streets. He’d be in jail today.

But, being black, poor widdle Twayvon was given a pass.  Notice that the “jussiss fo’ Twayvon” bleaters don’t talk about that miscarriage of justice!



| July 24, 2013 - 8:02 PM

It’s good someone in academia is speaking out.. A textbook example of “If the only tool you have is a hammer (rage), every problem looks like a nail.

The media has been nothing short of criminal in this whole little drama. The insistence on using the picture of Travon at 12 for example.. can anyone imagine a case where they would do that if the person shot had been white?.. or any other group?

The reason is obvious enough, it advanced their agenda, showing Martin at 17 with the gold teeth, and tats with the menacing poses he had on his facebook page, would “confuse” people,.. and lest they come to the “wrong” conclusion, we’ll lead them there like goats.

and black communities will slide further in chaos, poverty, despair, because the academic and media race baiters, want it that way.


| July 25, 2013 - 7:34 AM

Wood aptly describes the complicity of some dangerously misguided academics in shopping to the academic and, in some cases, to the national media the “poetic truth” of their own fictional versions of this sad affair.

richard groff

| July 25, 2013 - 12:27 PM

“stand your ground law” (although it played no role in the trial),

That is an incorrect statement.

Michael Becker

| July 25, 2013 - 1:21 PM

No it’s not Richard.  I’ve seen incredibly tortured arguments that make a really bad case for SYG being “part” of the rationale for the Zimmerman trial & verdict, but in fact it was not.

See Legal Insurrection,

The LI article in question is about the recent Houston shooting, but the commentary is right on-point with Zimmerman and SYG.

“As those of you who have been following along will by now have heard ad nauseam, Stand-Your-Ground simply relieves you of any generalized duty you might otherwise have had to retreat before using deadly force in self defense.

That generalized duty, however, only exists if there is a safe avenue of retreat available to you. You are never required to take advantage of an unsafe avenue of retreat, or one that increases your danger–like retreating across a busy freeway, for example.

If there is no safe avenue of retreat available, there is no duty to retreat, and if there is no duty to retreat then there is no need to apply Stand-Your-Ground to relieve of you of that non-existent duty to retreat.”

He then goes on to cover the A/O/J standard for self-defense.

In Zimmerman’s trial the key elements were that Martin sucker-punched him, broke his nose, knocked him down and was on top of him smashing his head into the pavement.  There was no “safe retreat” available to him.

The defense and the verdict were clearly based on self-defense.  The defense never discussed SYG as a mitigation for the shooting and the prosecution never discussed any rationale of SYG.

Richard Groff

| July 25, 2013 - 1:25 PM

The judge read the syg jury instruction which she would not have done if the jury was not supposed to consider it and if there was no evidence to support it.

Hilareous Hillary

| July 25, 2013 - 2:28 PM


Michael Becker

| July 25, 2013 - 5:03 PM

A casual mention in jury instructions has nothing to do with the fact that the case never had anything to do with SYG. 

Original police investigation didn’t mention it, prosecutor didn’t mention it.  Defense didn’t rely on it, the defense was “self-defense” from the first minute to the last, and if you look at what the jury discussed it never came up.  The jury’s decision was based solely on the fact that Zimmerman was attacked by Martin and he was defending himself and had reason to believe that his life was in mortal danger.  Since he was laying on his back being beaten to death, “retreat” was never an issue.

David Taylor

| July 28, 2013 - 11:45 AM

An excellent essay by Dr. Wood; it in the midst of this tragedy it is easy to let racial outrage blind us to more straightforward explanations, and we academics are not immune to knee-jerk reactions that fuel the PC narrative.

BTW, if that’s the phrase I’m looking for, my understanding (I’m not a lawyer and appeal to others for clarification) was that Mr. Zimmerman’s attorneys opted not to use the ‘Stand Your Ground’ defense for the reason that a clause in the law states that an individual who initiates a fatal encounter may not use SYG as a defense; there were obvious concerns that the prosecution would try to create the impression that Mr. Zimmerman precipitated the cycle of events by leaving his car and approaching Trayvon Martin, rendering the SYG defense unavailable. By focusing on the last few minutes of the encounter, Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers correctly assigned blame precisely where it was at the most critical moments, when Mr. Martin could have asked questions rather than attack.

Michael Becker

| July 28, 2013 - 11:56 AM

There is absolutely no evidence that Zimmerman initiated any encounter, in fact the evidence shows the exact opposite.  Asking someone who they are and/or why they are in a gated community is not “initiating” an encounter.

In fact, SYG was never an issue because Zimmerman was in fear for his life with Martin on top of him smashing his head into the pavement.  It was a clear case of self-defense, that’s what the defense argued and that’s what the jury, correctly, found.

David Taylor

| July 28, 2013 - 2:59 PM

Michael, thanks for your note in response to my inquiry about the “Stand Your Ground” issue. We are in complete agreement about this; I was reporting a speculation I heard about Mr. Zimmerman’s defense strategy. My wife, who is an attorney, always cautions that juries can be fickle, and a good prosecutor could have manipulated the impressions of the jury. Whatever Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers decided, it worked….

Richard Rider

| July 30, 2013 - 11:35 AM

I suspect that, by now, many of you have watched this superb video by the incomparable Bill Whittle—detailing the facts about both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and how badly the media misrepresented both men in the tragedy. And yes, no matter how you look at it, this entire experience WAS a tragedy.

Peter Cohee

| August 15, 2013 - 4:40 PM

Mythology is how our minds work: on the basis of our own lived experience or virtual experience through learning from others, we construct a theoretical pattern of action that helps us be ready to make sense of confusing and upsetting circumstances. Theodore Dalrymple has an excellent piece on the usefulness of stereotypes in the National Review (13 August).  Of course, we always have to check that reality either does or does not follow such mental plots; for that checking is also how the mind works.  As for our righteous and wrathful brethren and sistren in yon eburnean towers, well, their strength is as the strength of ten, because their hearts are pure.

One very interesting and—almost—overlooked detail is that of the gated community.  It is a significant plot detail for this particular tale because the gated enclave is now a thorough metaphor in education: better schools, more demanding classes, etc., being “closed” to minority students who are “denied access” to the safe and leafy grounds of the lily-white estate.  It is itself an architectural icon of the racism—real or earnestly desired—that drives this story.

David Kaiser

| August 16, 2013 - 1:38 PM

A log of Zimmerman’s more than 40 911 calls in the last 9 nears can be found at:
Zimmerman emerges as a man who was always looking for trouble.  In addition, in the months before the Martin shooting, he reported no less than 8 black males as suspicious, and they were the only people he reported as suspicious.  It does not seem that any arrests were ever made as a result. Nor does it seem to be going too far to suggest that black males struck him as ipso facto suspicious.
This was not an ordinary homicide. Ordinary homicides take place inside homes among people who know each other, or in the course of robberies.  This killing occurred because Zimmerman disregarded the advice of the police and went looking for trouble.  The jury was in an impossible position, because Zimmerman is now the only person who could know what happened. (The statement in the article that “witnesses” said the call for help was from Zimmerman is misleading. Some witnesses said that; others said it was Martin.)  It’s hard to fault the jury for failing to convict without knowing more, but the facts certainly support the charge that Zimmerman engaged in both racial profiling and vigilante behavior with fatal consequences.

Leonard R. Powers

| August 17, 2013 - 11:27 PM

George Zimmerman’s racial ancestry includes Black African, Peruvian Indian and European American.  Under America’s unique “One Drop Rule” George Zimmerman, like President Obama, is an African American.  Trayvon Martin was killed by a Black man.