The Hunt for the White Trayvon Martin

The hunt for the white Trayvon Marton has evolved since the case became national news, with a changing cast of victims and perpetrators, but the problem has remained the same: instead of countering the racial narrative of the Martin case, it has only reinforced it. 

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The hunt for the white Trayvon Marton has evolved since the case became national news, with a changing cast of victims and perpetrators, but the problem has remained the same: instead of countering the racial narrative of the Martin case, it has only reinforced it.

For years, guys like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have condemned people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as "race hustlers," arguing they're making a living exploiting phantom racism. But the point of finding a white Trayvon is not to prove that racism isn't real, but that racism is justified. To refresh your memory: the outrage over the shooting of Trayvon Martin was not just that George Zimmerman assumed the unarmed teenager was a criminal, but that the police let Zimmerman go without a charge because they thought it was credible when Zimmerman said he had to use lethal force against a kid carrying with Skittles. You probably remember the rest.

But what you may have forgotten is how much fixation there was on the idea that if the races of Martin and Zimmerman had been reversed, the outcome would have been different. On the left, this gave birth to a meme (shown above) that went viral after The Grio posted it in May 2012. It's intended to create sympathy for Martin — that fewer people would have assumed Martin deserved to be shot if he were white. But on the right, to try to shut down the outrage and counter the attention that the Martin case was receiving — or at least to rebut the claims that the shooting was a clear-cut example of the deadly results of racism — there was an effort to find real-life incidents of reversed races that weren't leading every cable news channel. Here are a few of them.

The Black George Zimmerman

In Greece, New York, in 2009, Roderick Scott, who is black, was acquitted of manslaughter when he fatally shot a white teenager he had spotted breaking into cars outside his home. According to Scott's testimony, at about 3:30a.m., he heard people outside, grabbed his handgun, went out, and saw three teens breaking into a neighbor's truck. When he confronted them, one started running at Scott. Unsure whether the rushing kid was armed, Scott shot him twice. Scott killed Christopher Cervini, who was 17.

Here at last was proof that the police did not show racial prejudice in letting Zimmerman go. Instapundit wrote, "RACISM IN AMERICA: Black Man With Pistol Permit Shoots White Teen, Is Acquitted. Funny, didn’t get much coverage — not politically useful." An item reposted at the conspiracy theory site InfoWars said:

Did you notice during the George Zimmerman trial how the media kept repeating the salacious question “What if Trayvon Martin had been white?” They acted as if this question was the perfect response to Zimmerman defenders. They pretended that this was a question without a “safe” answer, but in reality, the question had already been answered. wrote, "This is the story that the mainstream media in America doesn’t want you to know about, the story of a black man who, when attacked by a 17-year-old white boy, did what he felt like he had to do to survive and shot and killed the unarmed teen."  The conservative blog Patterico's Pontifications noted, "Obama suggests that people in Roderick Scott’s position would be convicted in today’s AmeriKKKa if they shot a white kid. Scott was acquitted. So much for your snarky little insinuation, Mr. Obama."

For the record, the cases are not the same. Scott was in front of his own home, Zimmerman was not. Scott was confronted by three teens, Zimmerman trailed one. The teens were committing a crime at the time of the confrontation, Martin was not. Scott was immediately arrested on a second-degree murder charge (a grand jury reduced the charge to manslaughter), Zimmerman was not charged until there was massive public outcry.

The White Trayvon Martin

"The Black George Zimmerman" never had quite the same emotional resonance. So instead of talking about black men who'd stood their ground — and one supposes, the colorblind nature of the Second Amendment or a national conversation on how if slaves had the right to bear arms there would have been no slavery — the conversation moved on to finding black teens whose crimes proved Zimmerman was right to be afraid. Instead of finding the Black George Zimmerman, some on the right started looking for the White Trayvon Martin. The point was to prove, as Richard Cohen argued in The Washington Post, that racial profiling is OK: "Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males?"

The hypocrisy here, it is argued, is that President Obama — and by extension everyone who thought the Martin shooting was driven by racism — was failing to put enough attention on just how dangerous young black men are. On ABC's This Week in July, former George W. Bush press secretary Dana Perino said, "If you think of the young mother whose 2-year-old son was shot in the face by the two black teens that approached her in Atlanta and that baby had died, why do presidents choose to speak about one case and not the other?" Again, unlike in the Martin case, in that case the alleged shooters did not walk free. One shooter was indicted on 11 counts, including malice murder; the other was indicted on seven counts. The National Review's Victor Davis Hanson told the story of the time he got robbed by black people when he was a grad student (this was a long time ago, since he's almost 60 years old), and about three black men accused of armed robbery of a jewelry store. Again, these men didn't go free, but were arrested.

This week, the white Trayvon is Christopher Lane, a 22-year-old student in Oklahoma who was shot to death by three black teenagers who allegedly said they did it because they were "bored." One problem with this narrative, as MSNBC's Adam Serwer points out, is that the three teens weren't all black. As an official in the Stephens County District Attorney’s office explained, "One is black, one is half-black half-white, the other is white." Their names are James Frances Edwards Jr., Chancey Allen Luna, and Michael Dewayne Jones.

Whatever! As Rush Limbaugh said on Wednesday:

"No matter where you look in the media, it’s not a racial event... They're not focusing on the racial component of any of the people involved in this. We have not heard from the Reverend Sharpton, the Reverend Jackson, the NAACP, we haven’t heard from anybody...

This is worse than a double standard.  This is a purposeful, willful ignoring of the exact racial components (but in reverse) that happened in the Trayvon Martin shooting. 

He followed up on Thursday, addressing the question of whether the fact that one of the three accused being white might undercut the case that this was a hate crime against white people. Limbaugh said, "Here you have two black perps, wannabes in the Crips or the Bloods or what have you, targeting a white guy because they were bored. Their getaway driver happened to be white, a little bit of a mitigating factor, it is said." Well, he said, Edwards, the 15-year-old accused of riding in the passenger seat when Lane was shot, reportedly tweeted several months before the shooting that "90% of white ppl are nasty. #HATE THEM."

On Thursday, frequent Fox News pundit Bernard Goldberg wrote a column titled, "If President Obama Had a Son He Might Look Like …"  Obama, Goldberg pointed out, might look like Edwards, who is black, or maybe Luna, who is biracial. Not that he should say so! Goldberg writes, "there’s no reason Barack Obama should say his imaginary son would look like the shooter. But then, there was no good reason for the president to say if he had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin." To state the obvious, the reason Obama said his son would look like Martin was not to remind the country that Obama is black. It was to say that young black men — maybe even a president's son — are sometimes presumed to be criminals for no reason but their skin color.

Glenn Beck, too, wanted to know where the media outrage was. "Where is Al Sharpton?" he asked Wednesday. His co-host, Pat Gray, said of Obama, "Did he come and say, ‘If I had an illegitimate love child with a white woman, he would look like Lane?" On his Fox News show Wednesday night, Bill O'Reilly asked why the "civil rights industry" hadn't spoken out about the shooting.

The search for the White Trayvon culminated the brother of George Zimmerman explaining that the real problem is not racism but black violence. On Thursday night, when David Webb, guest hosting on Sean Hannity's Fox News show, invited Robert Zimmerman to discuss a "glaring double standard" shown by Obama in not speaking out in the Lane case. "I see the double standard there," Robert Zimmerman said. Obama doesn't have to mention every case with a "racial inflection," he noted generously, and it's not fair to just look at the race of the shooter to call the crime racist. But looking at what is reportedly one of the accused's Twitter accounts, Zimmerman said, it's clear he "hates white people." Further, "if you read between the lines there, that's a black young person saying that they are not happy with the [Zimmerman] verdict and that they are directing violence, hostility, towards people who are white, very specifically."

Webb responded that the Lane case is about something bigger:

You know bothers me about this is, this really about a thug lifestyle. And it's not always black on white. It's something deeper than that. We have the references to white people, knocking them out. We have gang-style initiation events. And when you look at this for what it is, the real danger is that it's hijacked for another agenda rather than dealing with the correct problem.

The implication is that racism is the incorrect problem and that black violence is the correct problem, the one that really needs addressing. "In your brother's case, it was false narrative that it was a race issue that was pushed that was supported by the race profiteers out there," Webb said. Meanwhile, "there are no civil rights leaders leading a charge on what's happening to our young children today." But that's exactly what George Zimmerman, accused racist, was working on, his brother said. Obama called for "mentoring African-American youth," Zimmerman said, and, "that happens to be what my brother was doing... You have to go into the hood, which is quite literally what George did."

Those who thought the actions of Zimmerman and the police were racist say the case shows how racial prejudice puts the lives of innocent black men at risk. Black men have to be extra careful —not to put their hands in their pockets when talking to police, not to wear a hoodie while walking at night — because white people are irrationally scared of them and might shoot them. And the prejudice that black men are inherently more violent means that while Zimmerman had a right to defend himself, Martin didn't.

The white Trayvons don't challenge that argument. Those pointing to the white Trayvons do not claim that black racism against violence-prone whites puts white men at risk. They make the case that white people are right to fear blacks because blacks are prone to random acts of violence — and this prejudice is exactly what those who think Trayvon Martin died because of his skin color have been talking about.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.