Europe Sees History of American Racism in Trayvon Martin Killing

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European media coverage of the 17-year-old's killing seems to reinforce pre-2008 ideas about race in the U.S.

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A streetside memorial for Trayvon Martin Reuters

Sometimes, media coverage of a story becomes a story in its own right. It happened with Occupy Wall Street this past fall. Now it is happening with the Trayvon Martin case, where an unarmed African American 17-year-old was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain who claims he acted in self defense.

Much of the European media coverage portrays the incident as part of a larger trend: what they seem to see as the pervasive and enduring problem of American racism.


European outlets, of course, aren't the only ones to suggest that Trayvon Martin's death, and particularly the lack of a local police investigation, involved racism. That's a premise of the recent hoodie protests in the U.S., as well. Race and racism lie at the heart of the Trayvon Martin uproar in the U.S.

European coverage seems to call out the racism in the Trayvon Martin case as a clear continuance of U.S. history. A Spanish headline announced that Martin's death has "reopened debate in the U.S." Multiple French summaries refer to Martin's "murder," rather than -- as mainstream American papers print to avoid controversy and to be legally consistent -- his "death," "shooting," or "killing." Most significantly, articles tend to connect Trayvon Martin, American history, and Barack Obama.

European newspapers do not speak with one voice, nor do they necessarily reflect the views of all ordinary Europeans. But certain common European assumptions about America are clearly discernible in the European Trayvon Martin coverage. As Charles Hawley wrote in Der Spiegel immediately after the 2008 election: "America, many Europeans were certain, was far too racist a country to elect a black man to occupy the White House."

Now, this sentiment is popping up again. An article in Germany's Die Welt refers to "America's original sin is slavery, its daily scourge of violence." It also brings up the NRA. An article in Italy's La Repubblica also calls out the NRA, the "powerful gun lobby," and brings up "the fanatical alter boy from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum," as well as the so-called birthers.

As disparate as these different references may seem, there's a common theme. It's not just that Trayvon Martin's death involved racism, seems to be the European perspective, but that this racism is uniquely American. It is, from across the Atlantic, seen as the counter-evidence to Barack Obama's election. 

Though this point is only made explicitly in a few articles -- Uwe Schmitt sees the case as "plung[ing] the country into racial conflict that seemed after Obama's election to be suppressed and almost forgotten" -- it's lurking within many, many others. Vittorio Zucconi suggests that Barack Obama has been ignoring racial issues and that Trayvon Martin has forced him to confront them. He and others seem to mean that Americans have been ignoring racial issues, for which Barack Obama was their cosmetic fix. Trayvon Martin has forced Americans to confront the complacency they acquired in electing Obama.

You can agree or disagree with this reading. What's clear, however, is that the Trayvon Martin case is starting to look like Rorschach test not only among American media outlets but in European ones as well. If the individuals writing these articles actually believed, back in 2008, that America was "too racist" to elect a black president, the Martin case, then, presents the perfect datapoint for reverting assumptions to the earlier, pre-Obama baseline for American racism. And that seems to be exactly how it's being interpreted.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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