It may be months before we know what actually happened the night Trayvon Martin was shot in Sanford, Fla. on February 26. But many seem to have already decided that this was a brutal case of racial profiling and vigilante justice, emblematic of lingering racism in America.
Martin's parents, who understandably want justice for their son, have been joined by a plethora of activists, politicians, commentators and celebrities in demanding that the shooter, George Zimmerman, be arrested and tried for murder. The Justice Department has gotten in on the act as well, investigating whether the shooting constituted a hate crime based on a an inaudible comment by Zimmerman on his 911 call that some have alleged was a racial slur. But turning this tragic incident into a symbol of racism is wrong and reeks of opportunism on the part of racial showmen like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
Most homicides in the U.S. involve a victim and a perpetrator who are of the same race. But cross-racial homicides are more common among strangers, as in the Martin shooting. According to the most recent data available from the Justice Department, blacks have a homicide victim rate that is six times higher than whites, but their rate for committing homicide is seven times higher than whites.
When cross-racial, stranger homicides occur, they are far more likely to involve a black killer and a white victim than the reverse; 17.7 percent of stranger homicides are black-on-white compared to 4.5 percent for white-on-black. This statistic is particularly striking given that the white population is nearly six times larger than the black population, making the black-on-white homicide rate proportionally even higher. But do we automatically assume a racial motive in such killings? No, nor should we -- unless there is concrete evidence that race hatred is the motive.
Why, then, are so many people eager to impugn race as the motive in the Martin case? The media have played a big role. The first stories of the shooting identified the shooter as a white man who was part of an informal neighborhood watch group. But photos of Zimmerman -- whose dark skin and features suggested he was either Latino or of mixed race -- belied the media labels. It turns out that Zimmerman's mother is Peruvian. Worse, most of the early pictures showed a surly-looking Zimmerman wearing what might easily be mistaken for the standard-issue orange jumpsuits worn by prisoners.
But the pictures used to portray the victim were even more telling in terms of media bias. Most of the pictures show an angelic 12- or 13-year old schoolboy, not the well-developed 17-year-old football player who was several inches taller than his shooter. Photos of Martin displayed on his Twitter account show a husky teenager flashing his gold-capped teeth with the moniker NO LIMIT NIGGA.
According to published police reports from the night of the shooting, Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and back of the head. Moreover, prosecutors declined to bring charges against Zimmerman. Skeptics of Zimmerman's account point to grainy surveillance videos showing him being taken into the police precinct that same evening. The videos do not appear to show severe injuries.
Was Zimmerman acting in self-defense, or was he the aggressor? Witnesses give conflicting accounts. Martin's girlfriend claims Martin was being followed, while a 13-year-old witness told police he saw a man fitting Zimmerman's description lying on the ground moaning and crying for help. Which version of events is accurate?
At this point, it is simply not possible for anyone outside the investigation to know what happened that awful night. There are lots of unanswered questions. Was Trayvon Martin an innocent teen, minding his own business when beset upon by a crazy amateur crime fighter? Was George Zimmerman attacked and beaten while returning to his vehicle? Or were both men caught up in a confrontation that got out of hand?
The truth is, we can't possibly know right now. But the worst we can do is to try to portray this story in black and white. Not every killing involving a black victim and a white perpetrator has to do with racism. The media's role in leading us to believe otherwise is irresponsible.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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