Linda Chavez

The jury will soon decide the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman, the man charged with murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, but a verdict will not end the debate about this case that has raged from the beginning.

Like the O.J. Simpson trial nearly two decades ago, the Zimmerman trial has become a litmus test on race. And the media have played a major role in pushing race as the underlying issue, to the detriment of all concerned.

From the beginning, the media played up the racial angle. People magazine's coverage was typical. A cover story in April 2012 featured pictures of Martin's childhood as "an adorable tot," "budding scholar" and at family gatherings where, the magazine noted, "he was always the first to arrive and the last to leave."

Only one photograph in the story showed a version of Martin as the 17-year-old George Zimmerman actually encountered the night he killed him: A framed photo of Martin in a hoodie being held by the teenager's grieving parents.

And that hoodie summarized the prevailing media storyline: "On Feb. 26 Trayvon's unwavering taste for hoodie couture may have proved deadly." In other words, if you're young and black and wear hooded sweatshirts, beware: Crazy white people may try to kill you.

Which comes to the issue of George Zimmerman's race. Zimmerman's picture also appeared in the People magazine story as it did ubiquitously: an unsmiling, unshaved man in an orange, jail-issue jumpsuit. When the first stories appeared, Zimmerman was identified as white; only later, when it turned out that his mother was an immigrant from Peru, did most news stories refer to him as a white Hispanic or white and Hispanic.

While Hispanics may be of any race, the media usually treat the term as if it were its own racial category, so the decision to attach "white" to the designation is not common practice. But the designation was important to making race a central issue in the case. If Zimmerman were simply "Hispanic," or had he been black, then the killing would never have become a national story.

The homicide rate for black males 14 to 17 years old is the second highest of any group -- 31 homicides per 100,000 population, compared with only 4.5 percent for whites of the same age in 2008, the last year for which data are available -- exceeded only by the rate for black males 18 to 25, which was nearly three times higher.

Linda Chavez

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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