June 27, 2013

(Jacob Langston / The Associated Press)

In the George Zimmerman trial on Wednesday, witness Rachel Jeantel testified that Trayvon Martin, moments before his shooting death, told her that he was being pursued by a “a creepy-ass cracker.” When asked about that term by defense attorney Don West, Jeantel protested that it wasn’t a racist term.

West: You don’t think that “creepy-ass cracker” is a racial comment?
Jeantel: No

Salon’s Joan Walsh today argued that “white grievance-mongers seemed less bothered by the fact that Martin allegedly used the term than by Jeantel saying it wasn’t a slur.”

We’ve seen this “cracker” debate play out before. Back in January 2012, Jonathan Martin, then a reporter for Politico (and now the New York Times), appeared on MSNBC to break down the Florida Republican primary. He was speaking to Chuck Todd when he said this: “As you know, Chuck, a lot of those counties in the panhandle, in north Florida, the cracker counties if you will, more resemble Georgia and Alabama than they do Florida.”

NewsBusters, a site that monitors the mainstream media, interpreted Martin’s characterization of the north Florida counties as an “insult.”

The pushback from Martin was fiery. He told NewsBusters, among other things: “In the Florida political-cultural parlance, it refers to a Florida native. It is as anybody down there who knows Florida culture knows politics well a term of endearment, and widely used…. It is the title of books about Florida history and culture. It’s the title of a museum about native Florida culture. Used in newspaper accounts for years talking about Florida politics and culture. And that is the context in which I was using it.”

Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for “Cracker (pejorative)” starts like this: “Cracker, sometimes white cracker or cracka, is a sometimes racist expression for white people,[1] especially poor rural whites in the Southern United States. In reference to a native of Florida or Georgia, however, it is sometimes used in a neutral or positive context and is sometimes used self-descriptively with pride.”

NewsBusters’s Noel Sheppard reached this conclusion on the debate:

The reality is that after talking to Martin on and off the record, I believe him to be a highly-professional gentleman who thinks he said nothing wrong on MSNBC Tuesday. The research I’ve done supports this view: what he said about Florida crackers is not offensive in Florida.

But he was on a national cable network with national viewers that don’t have the same opinion of this term as people in the Sunshine State.

At Mediaite, Tommy Christopher makes the reasonable point that it’s hard to know just what “cracker” meant in the context of the Trayvon Martin case: “Now, it is entirely possible that Rachel Jeantel was referring to the common, derogatory use of the word, perhaps even likely, but it’s also possible that she and/or Trayvon Martin were referring to the non-pejorative use of the word….”

The media’s long struggle to understand Florida continues.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.