The Legend of Trayvon Martin
with John McWhorter
Ten years ago, after an altercation on the streets of Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin. The narrative quickly took hold that Zimmerman had pursued and instigated the altercation with Martin, and that he had done so because Martin was black and therefore suspicious. Within a month of the attack, this narrative had consolidated itself in the media to the extent that, in many circles, it was simply taken as a given that Zimmerman was guilty of a heinous hate crime. In the year between the initial reporting on the event and George Zimmerman’s acquittal by a jury, the Trayvon Martin case came to take on an outsized symbolic significance. From the shooting to the acquittal, “Trayvon” came to represent pervasive rot of racism, from the individual racism of Zimmerman on up through the systemic racism of the criminal justice system.
One would think, with a decade’s hindsight, that we would be able to see the facts more clearly. And the fact is that most of the narrative that the media has bought and sold over these last ten years has been false. I won’t relitigate the case here (for that you can watch Joel Gilbert’s documentary, The Trayvon Hoax), but the idea that the shooting constituted a racist attack that was then excused by a racist judicial system simply does not reflect reality.
The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy, but the racial unrest that followed in its wake and in the wakes of Michael Brown and George Floyd and many others was and is a catastrophe. In the excerpt from a recent conversation, John McWhorter and I discuss the consequences of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the narratives that developed around it. How much destruction could have been avoided if those with the power to change the narrative—journalists, academics, presidents—had had the guts to do so? How much longer can we afford to turn our heads from the messy truth and take refuge in the pat myths that have developed around these deaths?
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JOHN MCWHORTER: Yeah, the whole thing is ... It's very frustrating, because there's an aspect of, as John Ford said, “Print the legend.” And the legend, I get the feeling, has settled in. I'm not sure how many people even think of it as that Martin attacked Zimmerman and Zimmerman fired. I think the general meme is just that Zimmerman essentially got into a little argument with Trayvon Martin and shot him.
I wonder if people quite get that the shot was that Trayvon Martin was much bigger and stronger than Zimmerman and had him pinned on the concrete and was banging his head. Because if people really did understand that that's what went on, I'm not sure so many people would be so convinced that what happened was that Trayvon Martin was murdered in an utterly senseless fashion, that all began simply because he was black, and that this says what America is all about. My sense is that people are resistant to imagining what actually happened, which was more complicated and much less condemnatory of Zimmerman.
Even the basic imagery. And you almost hate to say this, because you think about somebody who's lost their child, but the iconic picture of Trayvon Martin is of him much younger than when what happened to him happened. And so I think people tend to think of that kind of dewy-skinned, big-eyed twelve-year-old in the picture. Where it's really, he was a tall, strapping young man by the time this happened, of the sort who could overpower Zimmerman, as opposed to thinking of Zimmerman as hunting down this teen, which is what I think people are imagining. And so what really happened versus what we were told was so different.
And I was taken in. Little known now is that I wrote the kind of pieces Charles Blow would have written. Certainly bring him in, and my assumption was that the story we were initially told, which was basically that this teenaged boy was gunned down after a little scuffle by this bigoted man who had no business pretending to be a cop anyway. I thought that was true. And then gradually it started to not quite make sense. Even then before, serious analysis had been done.
And here we are now where I think what really happened was so very different from what we've been told, right down to the idea that Zimmerman was only on him because he was black. Even that doesn't work if you look at the actual conversations that he had with actual police officers. And yet no one will hear it, and they're not going to hear it. So that begins what we can think of as a whole era in American race relations. It starts in 2012. And yet what actually happened is vastly different from what many people would like to think. I guess we just have to deal with that. Maybe that's the way history happens sometimes. But goodness it's frustrating.
And you know what else—I'm very done—but it's also frustrating that Joel Gilbert, whose book and documentary makes it painfully clear what actually happened and how different it was from what we've been told, including that one of the main witnesses was a plant. Unfortunately, he has those associations that are unsavory to many. Because, you know, he has hosted the kind of radio shows he has and kept the kind of company he's kept, unfortunately a certain kind of person simply shuts down upon hearing that. So the messenger is unlistenable to what we might think of as the left. And so that also keeps the truth from being actually out there.
I wish, for the sake of truth and for the sake of real racial healing, that it had been someone else who was that interested in the truth. But nobody who wasn't him would have wanted to find those things. No “enlightened”—but I'm not calling him unenlightened—no person on the left, no normal liberal would want to go to the trouble to find those things. And if they started to find them, they would turn away.
GLENN LOURY: Excuse me, John, I just want to make the observation that you're talking about the filmmaker Joel Gilbert, the documentary filmmaker whose book and film called The Trayvon Hoax exposes the witness fraud that you're making reference to. You and I have discussed that work of Gilbert's at length here at The Glenn Show, and I'll have links placed in the descriptive material of this post that takes people to our prior discussions from 2019, when Gilbert's film came out.
And he describes a Trayvon Martin quite different from the figure that has come into the public imagination as a kid with Skittles and a Coke who was just minding his own business. And he describes a George Zimmerman very different from the racist vigilante type. I mean, he was actually a “racial liberal,” George Zimmerman. He was a Hispanic guy who volunteered his time to tutor some black kids, big brother them, or whatever it might be. Yeah, he was a neighborhood watch guy who was concerned about robberies in the area. And yes, he was suspicious of Trayvon Martin. And after having been told by the radio dispatcher that they didn't need him to get out of his vehicle, he nevertheless got out of his vehicle.
The encounter with Martin happened, and Martin is dead. That's a tragedy, without any question, that that young man lost his life out there. On the other hand, a jury deliberated over all the evidence and, in effect, corroborated the decision at the time that the authorities made not to arrest Zimmerman, because they came to the conclusion on the basis of the evidence, including eye witness testimony, that Zimmerman's account of what happened—he was in danger of his life, and he defended himself, as he had every right to—was in fact the correct account of what happened.
But again, the narrative about it has entered into the pantheon of the accounts of African American mistreatment, such as it has done. And that becomes almost impossible to move, especially if ten years after, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Former President of the United States Barack Hussein Obama, and leading civil rights activist Al Sharpton with the assistance of prominent columnist Charles Blow—all of these are black people—are prepared to endorse the storybook narrative that—
Which I assume they did, right?
I watched the segment that we're talking about here from the New York Times, a ten-year commemorative, a small documentary. I mean, it's only ten or fifteen minutes long, with commentary by Charles Blow. And no, there was no second guessing about what actually happened or whether or not the narrative, as we have described it, of Martin's victimization, we have any reason to have any doubts about it, as you and I evidently do have doubts about.
I think a lot of people jump in at this point, and they say, “Well, why does Trayvon Martin have to have been a choir boy?” And he certainly doesn't.
Of course, that's what they say.
He was not. Many of us aren't. And of course then the idea is, well, he didn't deserve to die. And of course, nobody said that he deserved to die. But it's the way that it's thought of that matters. Because the idea that racism killed that guy is really, really flimsy.
Those departures from reality in the service of racial justice narratives, which are almost obviously false but which are nevertheless pressed by people, generate a backlash. And I wonder what cost that backlash actually exacts [from] us in the long run. A kind of cynicism, a kind of thinly veiled contempt from people who are not willing to say exactly what they think. I'm talking about white people. I'm talking about independent, politically middle-of-the-road, not reactionary right-wing types, but people who might be brought around to support this or that political initiative that you might want to mount but who in their heart of hearts can't really endorse some of the campaign because they know that it's built on sand.
It asks them to be complicit in lying about things that have happened. And when you think you're winning, you think you're winning when the editors don't allow the story to run on the front page that debunks your narrative. When the talking heads give affirmation to it, even a decade after the fact. When a former president of the United States can act as if there really aren't any questions here, we pretty much know what the story is, you think you're winning.
But you might not be winning in the long run. You might be setting up a situation where you will reap in the reactionary political backlash what you have sown, because you have command of the microphone, but you don't really have command to the hearts and minds of the masses of the people. White people.
You know, and this is the thing, though, what you create is skepticism and a certain quiet hostility.
And if you encounter it, you read it as evidence that racism persists, which unfortunately is what you actually kind of like, because that's your comfort zone, because you wouldn't quite know how to orient yourself if you couldn't think of yourself as a victim of systemic racism and subtle personal racism. So it's not exactly unwelcome to a person like that to encounter white skepticism, to encounter white people who don't want to serve on this or that committee with you, or, you know, the little dissings that might happen because of the skepticism. Then you can just say, yes, there's the racism that persists, and so all this keeps going in a circle.
Because the truth is, yeah, the op-ed page editors aren't going to publish something. But nobody necessarily knows that. But still, you feel like you won because everybody in your world, your world of academics and artists and intellectuals and activists and jurists, et cetera, everybody in your world toes the line. And I'm not sure to what extent these people know that it's a toeing of a line, because I think they sequester these things off into a region of their brains that I don't quite understand. That's not me saying they're crazy. But yeah, next thing you know, the white skepticism from everybody apart from your world, it just confirms the racism that made you do all this pretending in the first place.