How Academe Turned Zimmerman into a Racist

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.

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