Last week was one of the most sociologically fascinating and complex ones in recent American history. Yet what interests many people most from it is that, moments before his death, Trayvon Martin is reported to have referred to George Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” when talking on the phone to his friend Rachel Jeantel. There would seem to be a contingent who feel that Martin’s use of cracker was the equivalent of a white person’s using the N-word. It wasn’t.
No doubt, Jeantel was dissimulating in claiming that cracker is not a racialized term. Of course it is, and she knows it. In the wake of my own writings and comments on this issue, some people have written me in what appears to be sincere confusion between some whites’ affectionate in-group adoption of cracker and its use as a slur, thinking Jeantel, asked whether cracker was racialized, was thinking of the "warm" use of cracker. But this would have made no sense. Indeed, whites of a certain class have been known to refer to themselves as crackers in the same vein as many blacks use the N-word. However, Jeantel is neither a white person nor does she give much evidence of hanging out with many. She is under no illusion that Martin was using cracker as a term of endearment.
She was trying to avoid defaming Martin, as we would expect of a friend, not to mention one inexperienced in public speaking or presentation. The larger question is more interesting: Was it wrong for Martin to use “the C-word” (notice how goofy it even seems to euphemize it as such)?
Yes, and there are three reasons that the aggrieved ones of the moment are missing.
First, there’s a difference between, say, the white man who once dismissed me as “just another nigger” when I bested him in an argument in 1993 and Martin referring to Zimmerman chasing him as a “creepy-ass cracker”: power. The N-word comes from above, historically for reasons too often elaborated to require recounting here, and in the present due to sociological realities resulting from the historical ones.
Hence there was a difference in the seventies between Archie Bunker’s talk of “coons” and George Jefferson’s yelling “honkey” (and Fred Sanford’s open anti-white ideology). I imagine there were people back then who found George and Fred as reprehensible as Archie, but they would appear to have missed the implacable centuries-long tragedy that had made the Civil Rights revolution necessary.
Now, there are limits to this kind of thing, as I have stressed over the years to the dismay of many black people and white fellow travellers. When anti-white hostility becomes a matter of red-blooded theatrics, less constructive than a balm for cultural insecurity, an easy score with an audience, then I’m against it. For example, George and Fred were a decade past Selma; for black characters today to talk the same way would be repulsive. Or, Exhibit A would be much rap music, which I have decried right along with the kinds of people who are now so angry about Martin’s saying cracker.
Here we get to the second thing people are missing: degree. Interesting, too, in that we are dealing with people who otherwise criticize black people for exaggerating the prevalence of racism (which many do), for making mountains out of molehills—i.e. for not understanding degree.
But degree here is key. Martin didn’t call someone a cracker in a public forum, nor did he call someone a cracker to his face. He referred to someone as a cracker in a private exchange that he had all reason to suppose would never be heard again by anyone. That’s different, even to the extent that using the term wasn’t ideal.
One must be consistent here, and I am: I argued last week that Paula Deen’s use of the N-word in private in 1986 was different from her hauling it out upon someone or popping up with it on the air or at a booksigning. Again, degree matters. I think Deen’s apologies were sincere—and enough. People almost never completely erase the psychological conditioning of their childhoods. Many note that Deen has spent most of her life living after the Civil Rights revolution, but remember, as a 66-year-old, Deen’s formative years were the fifties, in the Deep South. Of course such a person might pop out with the N-word in a private heated moment, even in her forties. Unideal, but unsurprising at her age (although I don’t mean that all Southerners of her years are so likely to pull it) and so many people do so much worse: I don’t think Deen should suffer the penalty of losing her livelihood because of it. I’d feel otherwise if she were 30: degree, again.
Then the final thing being missed: What happened to Trayvon Martin was symptomatic of a general relationship between young black men and law enforcement. Few understand that this narrative is the main thing keeping America from starting to truly get past race today. The main reason black America feels like racism is still what America is based on, even with a black man winning the presidency not once but twice, is the police (ask some black people and time how long it takes for the police to come up).
Martin, as a black teenager minding his business suddenly pursued by a white (or white-looking) man, certainly felt himself as part of that scenario, in the same way that Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates blew up at Sergeant James Crowley in 2009 for stopping him on his own front porch, suspecting racial profiling. Here is an occasion where Martin would have rather naturally felt that the incident might have a racially-loaded implication. And at such a time, a black person might well, in what he thinks of as a private conversation, refer to the person coming after him with a vulgar, racially loaded term of dismissal. He might also preface it with "creepy"—a clear sign Martin felt under threat.
I suppose that many will insist that Martin’s utterance of that word in that context was the moral equivalent of Michael Richards yelling “He’s a nigger, he’s a nigger!” at a black heckler in 2006. I also suppose that such people will consider that position to be based on some kind of higher awareness—the achievement of which I openly admit my mental powers to be incapable.