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Addendum: A good piece by Julian Sanchez arguing that Zimmerman was pursuing Martin based upon a different knowledge set than the one Martin would have had. In econ jargon – asymmetric information. The main takeaway – and my argument that follows – is that these are real-time exchanges based upon faulty premises, bad information, and bias.
In yesterday’s post about George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin I wondered if we might learn something about Zimmerman’s supposed racism by listening to other 911 calls he’s made in the past. Sure enough, the Orlando Sentinel has a small collection of such recordings.
It is important to know what compelled Zimmerman to act in this manner. Is he an overt racist? Is he implicitly biased? It seems to me that those who support Martin – and there’s not a case to be made in which Martin isn’t the victim – are too willing to jump to the conclusion that Zimmerman is just an overt racist. Them hearing “fucking coon” in Zimmerman’s 911 call is an example of a post hoc justification for their intuition that Zimmerman is what they want him to be: a racist.
The Orlando Sentinel tacitly helps foster this interpretation. They present 5 or 6 of Zimmerman’s previous 911 calls reporting suspicious “black” individuals, but the important information to know at this point is whether Zimmerman called in to 911 only when he spotted blacks in his neighborhood. What are the demographics of his 911 calls? If he has called in for Hispanics and whites who he thinks look suspicious, then that might change the argument.
In the captions that the Sentinel provides, they scare-quote Zimmerman’s racial descriptions of the people he reports to the police. By doing so, the Sentinel is suggesting that Zimmerman uses the word “black” gratuitously. If such a description were gratuitous the case could be made that Zimmerman was focused on the blackness of the suspects rather than their behavior. But in the calls presented by the Sentinel, Zimmerman only responds “black” when the 911 dispatcher asks him about the race of the suspects. They invariably ask “white, black, or Hispanic,” and Zimmerman responds. Otherwise he uses the words “youth”, “gentlemen”, and “guy” to describe the people he deems suspicious.
Which brings us back to the supposed use of the phrase “fucking coon” to describe Trayvon Martin. At the beginning of the eerie 911 call, Zimmerman tells the dispatcher that Martin “looks black”. This is not a perfect exoneration of Zimmerman on the racism question, but it indicates that his instinct (as off-kilter as they are) was to look for suspicious behavior first rather than blackness. Other than that, “fucking coon” is out of sync with the rest of Zimmerman’s calls. One hears a great deal of paranoia and attention to detail in Zimmerman’s calls – he gives detailed instructions to the dispatcher to give to the police on where to possibly look for these fleeing suspects; struck me as way over the top – but none of the racism that supposedly fueled him. He uses no other racial epithets in that sample of calls to describe the blacks he’s reporting to police. Containing the fallout from this snippet of the story is important because if there is no analysis of it, the narrative will get swept away and cement the “overt racist” angle in place. Zimmerman is a piece of shit, but not for that exact reason.
The next question: was Zimmerman’s paranoia justified? Obviously, his pursuit of Martin is in no way justified, but what of the emotion that compelled his ill-conceived chase? Sanford, Florida does have a relatively high burglary/theft/robbery rate. The town’s property crime index is 2.3 times higher than the national average. On several calls to 911, Zimmerman makes it clear that his neighborhood had been recently burglarized. And Orlando, Florida – the metro area of which Sanford is a part – is the third most crime-ridden city in the U.S. Sanford itself has a relatively high crime rate for the rest of the country, the rest of the state, and for the metro Orlando area.