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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 01:52 PM ET, 03/28/2012

Why did New York Times call George Zimmerman ‘white Hispanic’?


Is this man a “white Hispanic”? (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Fox News contributor Bernard Goldberg is lashing out at the New York Times for its coverage of the Trayvon Martin case. His gripe? The paper’s stylebook. Let Goldberg describe his concern:

The national media doesn’t do stories on black-on-black crime. . . . They don’t do stories on black-on-white crime. . . . The New York Times, in almost a caricature of a liberal media, refers to George Zimmerman as a ‘white Hispanic.’ I guarantee you that if George Zimmerman did something good — if he finished first in his high school graduating class when he was younger — they wouldn’t refer to him as a white Hispanic, he’d just be a Hispanic. . . . He’s only a ‘white Hispanic’ because they need the word ‘white’ to further the story line, which is, White, probably racist vigilante shoots an unarmed black kid.

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg advances a twin argument, blasting the use of the “white Hispanic” term: “It’s the way the blame for Martin’s death belongs squarely at the feet of ‘the system.’ And ‘the system’ is a white thing, don’t you know?”

Here’s an example of what Goldberg and Goldberg are citing: “Mr. Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, told the police that he shot Trayvon in self-defense after an altercation.” That line comes from a March 22 New York Times news story about a development in the case.

The formulation is indeed an eyebrow-lifter. How often does such a term get tossed about? A Nexis search of the New York Times for “white Hispanic” over the past five years turns up 112 results. Yet that number is deceptively large.

A great deal of the language turns up looking like the following (from a March 2007 story on crime in Denver):

Once hailed as the Harlem of the West for its jazz scene, the historic black business enclave and its surroundings have given way to an influx of professionals, most of them white, and Hispanic immigrants.

Or the following (from a March 2008 story on the Democratic presidential primary):

Clinton advisers said her decisive victory in Ohio and her narrow one in Texas — where exit polls showed her winning the votes of women, whites and Hispanics in an extremely close race . . .

Or the following (from a November 2008 story on gang assaults):

They also said that the defendants were not racist and pointed to the young men’s friends, black, white and Hispanic, filling the courtroom seats.

A January 2011 New York Times story on demographics does use the term “white Hispanic,” but not in the main text of the story. This sentence comes from a graphics box or caption: “For Asians and white Hispanics, the rates of intermarriage have remained static or decreased since 1980.”

And a piece from February 2011 carries this line: “And reclassifying large numbers of white Hispanic students as simply Hispanic has the potential to mask the difference between minority and white students’ test scores, grades and graduation rates — the so-called achievement gap, a target of federal reform efforts that has plagued schools for decades.”

Q.E.D.: Use of the term in the New York Times archives is rare. Phil Corbett, the paper’s standards editor, concedes that “white Hispanic” and ”white and Hispanic” are “not very commonly used.” That said, Corbett notes:

Our guidelines say we mention race or ethnicity if and only if it’s pertinent to the story. Given that this is being investigated as a possible civil-rights case and has stirred protests in part because of concerns about racial elements, it seems clear that race and ethnicity are pertinent, for both people involved.

Yet determining how to describe Zimmerman requires some thinking. “There are no absolute, clear-cut rules on this,” writes Corbett via e-mail. “People often treat white, black and Hispanic as three parallel categories, but it’s not always that simple. As you know, Hispanic people can be different races. As I understand it, Zimmerman’s father is a non-Hispanic white, and his mother is a Peruvian immigrant.”

“White Hispanic” and other such terms, relates Corbett, didn’t work too well. “Some readers seemed to find them distracting or confusing, or to wonder whether we were trying to make some larger point (we weren’t). Eventually we decided that simply calling him Hispanic was probably clear enough, especially since by now most readers are familiar with him and the case. So that’s what we’ve mostly been doing.”

And as for the bigger-picture conspiracies alleged by Goldberg and Goldberg? “To suggest that our coverage of this story or our description of Mr. Zimmerman is intended to serve an agenda or push a political view is simply ridiculous. It’s just false,” responds Corbett.

By  |  01:52 PM ET, 03/28/2012

Tags:  george zimmerman, white hispanic, new york times, bernard goldberg, jonah goldberg

 
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