Facing racism on the stand

July 5, 2013

Nicole Colson reports on the disgusting racist and sexist abuse hurled at Rachel Jeantel, a witness in the trial of Trayvon Martin's killer George Zimmerman.

RACHEL JEANTEL isn't on trial--but you wouldn't know it from the way the media is smearing and slandering her.

Jeantel is the 19-year-old woman who was the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager murdered in February 2012 by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. By now, the story is well-known: Trayvon, on an errand to a convenience store to buy candy, was stalked and finally shot and killed by Zimmerman, the self-proclaimed head of a "neighborhood watch."

It took a national outcry before Zimmerman was finally arrested--a month later--and charged with second-degree murder.

Now, Zimmerman's trial has begun, and Jeantel spent two days on the witness stand last week, testifying to a predominantly white jury--one juror is Latina, the rest are white--about her phone call to Trayvon during the last minutes of his life. The response to her testimony from the media has run the gamut from merely disdainful to outrageously racist and sexist.

Jeantel has been attacked for everything from her attitude while testifying, to her style of speaking, to her inability to read cursive handwriting. Even her weight has been the subject of scrutiny.

Rachel Jeantel on the witness stand
Rachel Jeantel on the witness stand

Take a New York Daily News story about Jeantel's testimony. Referring to her as "Martin's gal pal," the Daily News declared:

In one especially cringe-worthy moment, the 19-year-old balked at reading a letter out loud in court, saying, "I don't read cursive."...

At one point, the key prosecution witness blurted out, "That's retarded, Sir." That came after defense attorney Don West claimed Martin attacked Zimmerman...

Jeantel admitted she didn't tell prosecutors, at first, that Martin called Zimmerman a "creepy-ass cracker" before the killing. She didn't want to say "ass" in front of the teen's mother, Sybrina Fulton.

Jeantel also admitted she had a friend pen a letter about Martin's death to his mother because she can't write legibly.

Of course, the Daily News and the other commentators don't give a damn about the use of a word with negative connotations about those with intellectual disabilities. They're smirking about a Black teenager and child of immigrant parents acting like a real human being in expressing her anger at the racist murder of her friend.

THE MEDIA'S implications that Jeantel lacks credibility because of her manner of speaking, her inability to read or write cursive, her nickname of "Diamond" or her anger at her friend being shot down provides one more example of how the Trayvon Martin case has exposed racist double standards in today's America.

Those double standards extended to the courtroom where defense attorneys attempted to discredit Jeantel by drawing attention to her style of speaking--she grew up in a family with Haitian and Dominican parents and speaks Spanish and Creole as her first languages--with repeated requests for her to enunciate or speak up.

Dr. James Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, told MSNBC that Jeantel's speech was being "exploited" by the lawyers. "Jeantel is multilingual, comes to English as her second or third language, and speaks in a variety of English that is completely credible in her speech community," he said.

If the mainstream media were bad, social media users were even worse in the storm of racist and sexist hate directed at Jeantel. References to her as "illiterate" and a "thug" were everywhere. Track star Lolo Jones tweeted, "Rachel Jeantel looked so irritated during the cross-examination that I burned it on DVD and I'm going to sell it as Madea goes to court"--a reference to the Tyler Perry movies in which Perry, in drag, plays an "angry Black woman" stereotype.

MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry asked the right question on her show, "How is it the first instinct of so many of us to mock [Rachel Jeantel] or be worried about how she represents to others?"

The ugly abuse directed at Jeantel--not to mention Trayvon Martin--shows that Black victims of racism are scrutinized about what they might have done wrong to "provoke" a response. The only victims of racism portrayed favorably are those who conform to a particular image--above all, one of passivity and not anger. As the Orlando Sentinel's Darryl E. Owens--referring to the defense's attempt to cast Jeantel as an "Angry Black Woman"--wrote:

A white woman's fury is righteous. But when a Black woman expresses anger it's somehow scary, dangerous. For a lawyer zealously defending his client, it's brilliant strategy--if morally murky...The jury is out on whether Jeantel hurt or helped the prosecution's case. But...in the court of public opinion, the verdict on Black women already is in: Angry as charged.

IN ONE particularly tense exchange during the trial, a visibly shaken Jeantel testified that Trayvon had told her he was being chased by a "creepy-ass cracker" on the night of his murder. Jeantel said she told her friend to run, and the phone was disconnected. But that's not what attorney Don West asked about next:

"Do people that you live around and with call white people, 'creepy-ass crackers'?" West asked.

"Not creepy. But cracker, yeah," Jeantel said.

"You're saying that in the culture that you live in, in your community, people there call white people crackers?"

"Yes, sir," she said.

Incredibly, the media immediately seized on Jeantel's use of the word "cracker." According to Slate.com's Justin Peters: "On Piers Morgan Tonight, Morgan repeated the phrase 'creepy-ass cracker' as if it were some inscrutable bit of baby talk."

CNN had the nerve to hold a debate about whether the word "cracker" was worse than the "n-word." Thankfully, the panelists seemed to agree the "n-word" is worse, given that it's a term of racist abuse, rooted in centuries of oppression. But it's a travesty that CNN could even ask the question.

But Trayvon Martin has nevertheless been tried and convicted of using a racist term. Thus, CNN's Tom Foreman wrote, "What matters is the jury. And it is hard to imagine how it can help the prosecution for those six Southern women to know Martin spent some of his final moments uttering a racial insult, no matter what he intended."

The idea that Trayvon Martin--who was stalked and murdered by George Zimmerman for being Black in the "wrong place"--could himself be seen as a "racist" for using the term "cracker" to describe the man who would ultimately kill him is both ridiculous and insulting.

Unfortunately, Foreman may very well be right--given that the jury hearing the case contains not a single African American member.

Mychal Denzel Smith, writing at TheNation.com, presented a very different picture of Rachel Jeantel:

Rachel Jeantel isn't a Hollywood actress. She's not a trained professional. She doesn't testify in court regularly. She's a young black woman missing her friend. She showed up to court to give all the information she had as to what happened the night he died.

"Are you listening?" she asked West at a highly contentious point her testimony where it seemed he had either lost interest or chosen to ignore the things she was saying. How many young Black women could ask that question to the world daily? We should be listening more. We should hear what the Rachels of the world have to say.

It's unclear how Rachel's testimony will affect the jury and the ultimate outcome, whether they'll read her as hostile and uncooperative. No matter what, though, Rachel stood and defended herself and Trayvon (and, frankly, many other Black youth) against the condescension, against silencing and against the character attacks. For that, she should be commended and thanked.

Exactly right. And we might also ask of the media that, instead of focusing on Trayvon Martin's use of the word "cracker" or Rachel Jeantel's diction, they get back to focusing on how an unarmed Black teenager was racially profiled and then murdered by a self-appointed vigilante.

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