‘Racist,’ ‘radical,’ ‘bigot’: For Zimmerman, abortion and gay marriage, the labels often lie

The Zimmerman verdict is in, but the story is far from over. A Justice Department investigation is underway to determine … Continued

The Zimmerman verdict is in, but the story is far from over. A Justice Department investigation is underway to determine whether civil rights charges should be filed. After all, isn’t this the next logical step? Even Joe Scarborough, writing a
Politco Op-Ed
in which he was ironically trying dial down the polarized reaction to the verdict, said that Zimmerman was “a racist idiot.”

No one should compromise on principle of resisting the racist social structures in our culture of whiteness, but it is a mistake to use that broad social lens to label individual people. Especially when it comes to race, the label often hides much more than it reveals.

It can even push people even to lie and distort the facts to fit the preordained racialized story. Zimmerman, a Hispanic, continues to be described as “white” in many news outlets. NBC News cut the audio tape of Zimmerman’s phone call to give the false impression he described Martin as “black” in connection with the fact that he looked suspicious. In reality, Zimmerman was asked about Martin’s race later in the conversation. A veteran producer was fired over the gross violation of professional ethics, and Zimmerman has sued NBC, but the damage was already done. Zimmerman had been slapped with the label.

Among those who accepted the label was Slate journalist William Saletan—that is until actually sat down and watched seven hours of closing statements. What he discovered surprised him: “I had been wrong about many things. The initial portrait of Zimmerman as a racist wasn’t just exaggerated. It was completely unsubstantiated. It’s a case study in how the same kind of bias that causes racism can cause unwarranted allegations of racism.” The FBI did an intensive investigation of Zimmerman and found no evidence that he was a racist. To the contrary,CNN reported that he was advocate for blacks in his community, even bringing public attention to the beating of homeless black man by the white son of Sanford police officer. ABC News reported that he and his wife tutor black children for free. And it turns out that Zimmerman actually has a black great-grandfather.


Texas state senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) speaks on June 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

This past weekend we also saw Texas pass a law which restricts abortion after 20 weeks. Some of the law’s most passionate defenders called their opponents “pro-aborts” and “radical feminists”, but these labels also hide more than they reveal. Those who opposed the bill are not necessarily pro-abortion, but instead argue that we should keep big government out of the private choices of women. They need not be “pro-abortion” any more than those who support the First Amendment are “pro-pornography.” Nor is opposition to the bill being led by women. To the contrary, 50 percent of American women supported the bill, compared to only 46 percent of men. Some of the strongest opponents to the bill are “brochoice” men—arguing that the bill would make casual sex outside of relationships far more difficult to obtain.

Finally, the debate over LGBT marriage goes on. Though the recent Supreme Court ruling about DOMA is evidence of growing support, 31 U.S. states still have constitutional bans of various kinds of same sex unions. The debate, however, has reached new levels of incivility. Though LGBT people continue to be subjected to horrific bigotry, those who oppose gay marriage are also labeled “bigots” or “homophobic.”

But Ryan Anderson points out that, on this view, President Obama deserved the label “homophobic bigot” given that he opposed gay marriage for most of his presidency. Similar labels could have been used against Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act. But once again, these labels hide more than they reveal. Many who have questions about gay marriage are not primarily concerned with gays and lesbians, but are instead driven by concerns for having a coherent concept of marriage and family—particularly as it impacts the flourishing of children. (Many, for similar reasons, also question the “no fault” divorce epidemic with heterosexual couples.) One can challenge their data, especially because it appears that children do well in same-sex families, but this is where our focus should be: the arguments. Labeling people “homophobic bigots” keeps us from having them.

Use of these labels is lazy, inaccurate and unjust. If we have any hope of honestly engaging our most pressing problems we must drop our labels and engage real people and real positions. Yes, we should try to persuade. But let’s do more listening, more reflective thinking, and even reserve the right to change our mind.

Charles C. Camosy is assistant professor of ethics at Fordham University in New York City. His most recent book is Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization.

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  • leibowde84

    Seems pretty simple to me. Zimmerman profiled Treyvon as a “punk” (or “thug” to the layman). It certainly isn’t racism, as I think he would’ve suspected anyone dressed like Treyvon. BUT, it’s arguably just as bad, as any young person knows that people cannot and should not be judged by the way that they dress. This is America, and people should be able to dress the way that they want without being accused of criminal activity. This isn’t the 1960s.

  • let’s discuss

    It is common to label people as “black” or “not black.” Thus Hispanics, Asians, and Whites are all “not black.” It is a very inaccurate way to report ethnicity. The simplistic labeling system often supports the story line of a political party or TV channel.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    leibowde84 – You write, “…as any young person knows that people cannot and should not be judged by the way that they dress.”

    Yes, you may be right, about many young persons. But, when they grow up, some of them learn everybody is judged by many things — what they are wearing is one of those things. Zimmerman probably could have invoked your “dress” statement, and chosen to wear only a spandex swimsuit to court. If he had, that might have been purely a young person-type’s thinking — like you think is just. I suggest you think a second time. Young people have never been known for their wisdom.

    Do you know more now, than when you were 20? I do. Ask any person 60, if they know more, than when they were 40 — and so on.

    I guess you went to graduate school, most likely got the degree, maybe with honors.

  • WmarkW

    A few decades ago, the humanities semi-sciences decided that within their realm, there’s no such thing as objective knowledge, only the perception of reality by each observer. This morphed into the liberal view that only members of supposedly oppressed groups are able to see the “isms” that victimize them. “You can’t see racism if you’re white” is a common refrain in response to the assertion that racism barely exists today. In response, many conservatives like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter talk about liberals as being idiots, or that “liberalism is a mental disorder.”

    But liberalism per se is not a mental disorder. There’s nothing crazy about wanting to protect workers, the environment, consumers and the financial system from the excesses of capitalism. But it’s easy to dismiss liberalism when the rebuttal argument to any conservative position is “You’re a racist/sexist/homophobe/nativist/Islamophobe.”

  • DOEJN

    Martin wasn’t in court. He had no reason to be wearing a suit. He was outside in the rain, so he had his hood up on his everyday casual clothing. It is not on par with going to court in a spandex swimsuit.

  • leibowde84

    I would have to agree with DOEJN, in that your comparison to a courtroom setting is way off base. In certain circumstances, I agree that a person should be judged by their dress, as it can show a lack of respect. But, when there is no reason to “dress-up,” as was the situation in Treyvon’s case, passers by have a responsibility to AT LEAST NOT ACT ON THEIR UNFOUNDED SUSPICIONS. In other words, people are free to be suspect of anyone for any reason … but, they have a responsibility not to act on those suspicions unless there is actual reason to. Further, Treyvon was a young man. Dressing in a hooded sweatshirt might seem “shady” to older individuals, but it is the norm in our modern society. Good or bad, it is the way that it is. Zimmerman acted like an out-of-touch old man, clinging to his prejudice of “thug” dress. Long story short, when it comes to the issue of profiling Treyvon, Zimmerman was completely in the wrong, and should be ridiculed for it. I agree, he didn’t break the law, but he did act in an irresponsible, dangerous, and prejudiced manner.

  • jay2drummer

    It may be wrong, but how you look IS the first impression people get for you, and how you dress is a part of that. I agree that Zimmerman’s reaction was poor, but to say people shouldn’t be judged on how they dress is unrealistic. That’s the problem with “Stand Your Ground” laws, or at least how they were applied in this case. While they should be a very valid legal defense, the simple matter is that by using it, you are confessing to committing a homicide, meaning the burden should be on the shooter to show a legitimate reason to fear for life and limb. But the truth is, people are always going to judge based on how you look or dress. How you react to these judgments is where people run into trouble.

  • ldfrmc

    When I was 18 in 1968 and registered for the military draft, the question I had to answer was: Do you have homosexual tendencies? Humorous then, the joke was on me. I crossed off the question and wrote in: I AM A HOMOSEXUAL.

    I’m still having to do that today. I’m still having to ask for an acknowledgement that I exist as a human being. Whatever the words used, to describe those opposed to my existence, those words are too kind.

  • Truthbetold3

    Re: “Though LGBT people continue to be subjected to horrific bigotry, those who oppose gay marriage are also labeled “bigots” ”

    Um, simple solution then: simply stop subjecting LGBT people TO “horrific bigotry” and the label “bigot” will cease to be applied.

    DUH!

  • Truthbetold3

    Further re: “Though LGBT people continue to be subjected to horrific bigotry, those who oppose gay marriage are also labeled “bigots” or “homophobic.”

    Let’s compare and contrast…

    Bigots get labeled “bigot”. Boo friggin’ HOO. The label is a reflection of the reality that they ARE bigots.

    Gay people in loving, consenting, committed, adult, human relationship get compared to (and I quote): “rapists”, “child-molesters”, “beastialists”, “necrophiliacs”, “murderers”, “worse than terrorists”, “marryin’ a plant/rock/bicycle”.

    THESE labels are patently false, demonstrably, observably untrue. Their sole purpose is to diminish, demean, debase and de-humanize gay people. They are applied to gay people BY bigots.

    Sorry, Mr. Camosy, but I’m cryin’ tears as big as horse turds for the bigots you act as an apologist for.

    Get a better argument against equality. The one you typed here sucks big time.

  • leibowde84

    Zimmerman didn’t use the “stand your ground” defense. It was just simple self-defense.

  • FlexSF

    People are complaining about being called racists and bigots? Maybe these people should stop using the race of others as a negative against others (and then murder them by a gun shot). Maybe the bigots should stop discriminating under the law and snatch the rights of others away. Until then, they are the racist thugs and bigots we say they are. If they don’t like it, too bad. They shall reap what they sow.

  • jay2drummer

    Which is legal because of the “stand your ground” laws. In other states that don’t have SYG laws, he would’ve been convicted because they require a person to have been attacked prior to use of deadly force. It was the legality of SYG that enabled him to feel confident shooting because he simply suspected someone (because the burden was no on him, but on the prosecutors), rather than actually having to wait for a credible threat to him.

  • brianmark

    Sorry you find this so complicated and confusing. Bigots are bigots. The dictionary says so. If you don’t like being called that, then go learn a language other than modern American English.

  • daysea

    “Until then, they are the racist thugs and bigots we say they are. If they don’t like it, too bad.”

    Wow. Such hatefulness. You have no idea what your heart is like, and yet you claim to know another’s. Clearly you didn’t watch the trial and George Zimmerman has become the scapegoat for your grievances.

  • daysea

    More hatefulness. Who would listen to you?

  • daysea

    You cannot force people to believe things they don’t believe. You are the captain of your ship and they are the captain of theirs. That’s life. That’s fair. I take my beatings for what I am and what I believe in. Everybody does. Why can’t you? Force cannot conjure up love and acceptance. You have to allow people the freedom you are asking for or you are being hypocritical. You can change the laws, and people will have to obey them, but you can’t force people to think like you. Why would you want to? Everybody faces prejudice.

  • daysea

    I also think it is very telling that we say “black” and “white”. The words themselves give away our primitive thinking. First off, I have never met anyone who was truly black or truly white. I am peach-ish olive skinned, and so called “black” people run the gamut from darker brown to lighter brown, and even that is a gross generalization. Most Hispanics are not brown, but rather sienna-ish. Asians are not yellow, and American Indians are not red. I say this as a painter, my profession. If we actually had to be accurate when identifying people by their skin color we would see how ridiculous white and black sound, and we would see how even using such opposite and inaccurate words affect our thinking. We are really like cavemen in this respect. We should always strive to be accurate.

  • daysea

    He was attacked.

  • daysea

    And yet you sound like one yourself.

  • leibowde84

    Nope, Jay2Drummer, the Defense Attorney for Zimmerman actively decided not to use the “Stand Your Ground” defense. He explained that it was unnecessary becasue Zimmerman didn’t have an opportunity to get away. Look at the case summary. Even Eric Holder admitted it.

  • leibowde84

    And for good reason. He went up to an innocent kid, accused him of wrongdoing without any kind of evidence (pretty insulting if you ask me), and kept following him after the Police Dispatcher informed him that it was not necessary. He deserved to get his butt whomped.

  • FlexSF

    You’re confusing the term bigot and racist. Anyone who sides with Zimmerman is a racist pig. No explanation is needed.

  • BRedmond1

    Good piece, professor.

  • Catken1

    You know, when you attack other people’s marriages and families, their legal security and that of their spouses and children, and seek to make their lives harder and more painful in a million real, tangible ways, from minor nuisances to lifelong anguish, just because you disapprove of their choice of spouse, the reaction you get is rarely, “Oh, what a good person you are! Let me give up the main source of joy in my life so that you don’t have to be made uncomfortable by my existence!”
    If you want not to be hated by certain people, don’t behave hatefully and cruelly to them.

  • Catken1

    Daysea, there’s a difference between not “loving or accepting” people, or not “thinking like them”, and working legally to undermine their marriages, hurt their families, and make their lives and their children’s lives less happy and secure.
    If a large group of people sought to take away your marriage and your family, legally and civilly, because you didn’t marry according to their wishes, you might not like them much either.
    You can not like or approve of someone’s choices, and still recognize their right to make their own choices for themselves without being penalized by it under the law. It’s when you start stepping in and saying, “Here, I know better than you what spouse is right for you. You can’t have the spouse you love, you must either remain unmarried or marry someone else who suits MY beliefs better,” that you behave hatefully and cruelly.

  • Truthbetold3

    daysea,

    What I typed is factual. What bigots say and do to and about gay people is what is hateful. If they want to stop being thought of as being bigoted or hateful, all they have to do is top doing what I described, and voila, ‘problem’ solved.

  • jay2drummer

    But that’s my point. It never made it to the courtroom. However, it did impact the investigation of the homicide in the first place. Because, as the time of his arrest, Zimmerman made reference to it, investigators didn’t properly treat the initial investigation they would any other homicide, causing trouble once it actually went to court.

  • larryclyons

    could someone translate this into coherent English please?

  • larryclyons

    Bluntly put if the shoe fits wear it.

    The anti-gays are generally bigoted and hateful they deserve the term bigoted. I’ve heard these people use the most hateful of language to describe gays, even advocating mass execution and putting gays into concentration camps.

    Bigotry is as bigotry does.

  • Catken1

    Yep, because when people attack other people’s marriages and families – perfect strangers to them, who’ve never done them or their family any harm – for no reason other than that they don’t like those people’s choice of spouse, then it’s BIGOTED to call them bad names.
    We should kowtow to them, kiss their rears, and tell them they’re extra-moral and speshul for trying to run other people’s lives and damage their loves and their happiness, right?
    Did you run in and whine to the teacher at recess, “Jimmy’s a BIGOT! He called me a BULLY! And all I did was beat him up and take his lunch money, because he would have bought a lunch I didn’t happen to like!”

  • brianmark

    Steve, sorry for that accusation!

    This was one of those situations where the comment page was scrolling at a different pace than my typing. My response seems out-of-the-blue because it basically was.