July 11, 2013

"Martin was black and Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic."

That's a telling way to put it, in a CBS/AP article about the judge's ruling that the jury can consider the lesser included charge of manslaughter. Reader "Jane" emails to say:
This must be in the AP stylebook somewhere, because that sentence, or some variation therof, is found in every single article about the case:  Martin "is" black but Zimmerman only "identifies" as Hispanic.  Can you recall any other situation in which AP has played with racial identification vs. race as a fact in the news story?
This is a great topic about which to maintain vigilance.

I'm going to put that alongside a related topic that I've been noticing of late: The Disappearing Hispanic. Remember that NYT article we were talking about the other day — "Zimmerman Case Has Race as a Backdrop, but You Won’t Hear It in Court"? I didn't bring this up at the time, but I noticed  The Disappearing Hispanic phenomenon in this sentence:

Prosecutors counter that Mr. Zimmerman, whose mother is Peruvian, set out to confront Mr. Martin and initiated the fight that ended in Mr. Martin’s death.
Instead of the umbrella category "Hispanic," we get the specification of the country of origin, in this instance, Peru. So "Hispanic" dissipates into numerous subgroups that are actually more real and more factual. I've seen a lot of discussion lately about that. (Google "There's no such thing as Hispanic" to get a taste.) And I think this is a trend that will increase along with the size of the Hispanic voting bloc. The subgroups will matter more, and the subgroups are more real.

(Feel free to argue with that assertion. What is reality when we talk about ethnicity? Saying "Hispanic" is a way to create reality, and it becomes a political reality, but political pressure will also break down and recreate that reality.)

And speaking of factual, we get the specification that Zimmerman's mother is Peruvian. Now, back to Jane's point: There's the is. It actually makes a lot of sense to say Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic. There's a level of choice in how to talk about oneself. The media tried to make the choice for him and called him white, or — retrenching — white Hispanic.

But that got problematic. Shouldn't the individual have the freedom to choose how to self-identify? This is like the old box-checking problem. Should a multi-racial person be deprived of the option to identify as one half of what he is? We certainly accept President Obama calling himself black though he's only half black. Isn't that a choice to identify as black rather than bi-racial? And yet we'd be puzzled if he were to identify with the other half and say he's white. If the choice to "identify" is only with the darker half of your biracial identity, I'd call that racist.

So maybe the trend will be toward more specificity, the precision of "Zimmerman, whose mother is Peruvian." That could be a steppingstone toward ending up not caring much about these details. Perhaps we're in a process of letting go of these big (and inaccurate) categories of race and ethnicity. The fact that Zimmerman's mother is Peruvian should be perfectly boring, but we know why it's included. It's a stand-in for race, which we take to be important, just as it was in the AP's cruder: "Martin was black and Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic."