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What Race Is George Zimmerman?

George Zimmerman has been described as white, a white Hispanic, and mixed race.

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
George Zimmerman Mugshot
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Discussions of race in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case have focused on issues of prejudice and stereotypes, but have generally ignored Americans’ confusion about the concept of race itself.

While my recent e-book and paperback, The Myth of Race, discusses various aspects of the race concept in depth—including the biology of human variation, cultural differences in conceptions of race, the race-IQ debate, and the treatment of race in the census—I will limit myself here to pointing out some of the paradoxes and confusions about race implicit in the current debate.

George Zimmerman has been described as white, a white Hispanic, mixed-race, and perhaps by other racial terms.

Americans assume that race is a biological entity, and use the folk term “blood” (meaning ancestry) to describe it. Since Zimmerman has some African ancestry on his Peruvian mother’s side, he would probably meet Louisiana’s former criterion, that anyone with 1/32 black blood is black. So one possible race for Zimmerman is black.

Most Americans would say that discrimination against Hispanics is racial discrimination, implying that Hispanics or Latinos are a race. However, the 2010 census says that Hispanics can be of any race. Hence, we have the hierarchical paradox that Hispanics are a race that can be any race. In any event, another possible race for Zimmerman is Hispanic.

The census says that people can only be of one race, so the U. S. government treats the mixed-race category as a contradiction in terms.

In fact, there has been a generational shift in American culture—people in their 80s would say that someone with any black ancestry is black, and teenagers would say that someone with white and black parents is mixed. Many Americans still believe that a white woman can give birth to a black person (e.g., President Obama), but that a black woman cannot give birth to a white person.

Having lived in Brazil, I can assure you that such people would unequivocally be considered white there—but in the United States, if they claimed to be white, many would still say that they are really black, but “passing for white.” So another possible race for Zimmerman is mixed race, though he could be any of several mixtures—white and Hispanic, white and black, black and Hispanic, or white, black, and Hispanic, depending on the cultural categories used by the classifier.

Some people view Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin as a white on black crime, so for them, Zimmerman’s race is white.

Interestingly, Zimmerman has been referred to as a white Hispanic, but not as a Hispanic white. This is because, most Americans assume that Hispanics are a race, and therefore are not white—so a white Hispanic is a kind of Hispanic. However, the census says the opposite—that whites and blacks (but not Hispanics) are a race. So according to the census categories, he is a Hispanic white—which is a kind of white person.

What does this all mean? It means that asking for Zimmerman’s race seems to be asking for biological information about him—but actually it is revealing something about American culture and our own confused ideas about race. Zimmerman’s race is a matter of cultural, not biological information. So different American subcultures classify him differently.