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'White Hispanic' In Crosshairs As Conservative Commentators Challenge Media's Description Of George Zimmerman

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George Zimmerman
George Zimmerman

George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman who shot and killed black teenager Trayvon Martin last month in Florida is of mixed ethnic background. He's been described as a "white Hispanic" by news outlets including The New York Times, Reuters, and The Huffington Post, prompting some conservative commentators to accuse such media of weaving a false narrative of white-on-black crime.

Some, including Trayvon Martin's parents, argue that Zimmerman, who was born to a white father and a Latina mother, acted out of racial bias. Still others, including Zimmerman's father, maintain that his ethnic background precludes him from such discrimination.

"He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever," Zimmerman's father wrote in a letter to the Orlando Sentinel, citing his son's Hispanic makeup and multiracial family.

While Zimmerman's motivations remain hotly contested, political pundit Bernard Goldberg says the "liberal media's" motivations in the case are clear.

"While no decent person is happy about what happened, no matter what your politics, there are some people whose purposes are served by what happened," Goldberg said to Fox News' Megyn Kelly on Tuesday. "The national media," he said was one of such groups.

“He’s only a 'white Hispanic',” said Goldberg, “because they need the word ‘white’ to further the storyline, which is ‘white, probably racist vigilante shoots unarmed black kid.’”

Goldberg added that the use of the term "white Hispanic" is almost "a parody of liberal media."

Rush Limbaugh, echoing Goldberg's claims, said that in his research he found the term "white Hispanic" has only appeared five times in The New York Times' history.

"Mr. Zimmerman—who, again, the New York Times refers to as a 'white Hispanic' and the rest of the media has now picked that up, 'cause that fits the template. You need white-on-black here to gin this up," Limbaugh said on his radio show.

"By the way, it's not just the New York Times referring to George Zimmerman as a white racist. I think the whole media is doing this now," Limbaugh added.

Checking Off Boxes: Race vs. Ethinicty

Limbaugh and Goldberg's outrage may however stem from confusion surrounding the term Hispanic.

The categorizations of Hispanic and Latino, often mistakenly thought of as racial classifications, in actuality refer to ethnicity. Alluding to a group of people of various racial backgrounds, "Hispanic" and "Latino" most commonly describe those peoples united by the Spanish language and Latin American culture.

While collecting population data, the Census Bureau now identifies the white racial category as "white, non-Hispanic," and allows for Latinos to use both racial and ethnic identifiers to categorize themselves. Some groups of Latinos, such as Afro Latinos, often self-identify in both racial and ethnic terms.

Ruben Rumbaut, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, told NPR last year that, "in the year 2000, persons that checked that they were Hispanic, when they answer the question on race, approximately 48 percent check white and another 43 percent check some other race."

Fair skinned celebrities such as the blonde Cameron Diaz, the blue-eyed Alexis Bledel, and the red-haired Louis C.K self-identify as Latino based on their ethnic make up.

While it remains unclear if Zimmerman would classify himself as a "white Hispanic", his case surely draws attention to the increasingly complex racial and ethnic make up of many Latino Americans.

Some Latinos believe the current debate over Zimmerman's appropriate racial categorization is behind the times.

Guy Garcia, the founding executive director of AOL Latino, argues that young Latinos often identify themselves and each other in complex terms.

"Recent studies have shown that Latino identity is malleable, contextual and constantly evolving. Younger Latinos in particularly see no contradiction in calling themselves Dominican, American and black, or Caucasian, Hispanic-American and Colombian, or gaysian, blaxican, or any other racial-cultural-sexual amalgam that fits their nationality, genealogy, sexuality and mood," Garcia wrote last year in a blog for The Huffington Post.

Rumbaut concluded in his 2011 interview with NPR that race "is not a biological given category." Rather, he says, it's "a social and legal and political construction whose meaning changes over time."

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