Kind of hard to escape the last few days evisceration of the first prosecution witness in the Trayvon Martin murder case by the media. And the role race has played in that.
Rachel Jeantel can’t read cursive. That’s the main takeaway from the fourth day of the George Zimmerman trial: Jeantel, the heavyset, snappy prosecution witness who was on the phone with her friend Trayvon Martin minutes before he died, cannot read script handwriting. Defense attorney Don West underlined that fact for the benefit of the jury, the general public, and everyone else looking for an excuse to dismiss her testimony.
Given the extent to which Jeantel’s demeanor was covered on television and in news articles, you’d be excused for thinking—as Jezebel’s Callie Beusman put it—that she was the one on trial. Over the past couple of days, Jeantel has recounted that Martin told her he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker” who, it seems, then proceeded to attack him. Pundits, meanwhile, have made snickering observations that have had little to do with the substance of her testimony. They’ve criticized Jeantel’s weight, her attitude, her manner of dress, and her mumbling, inarticulate answers to West’s questions. These observations are generally framed as discussions of her credibility and how she’ll be received by the jury. But they’re also an excuse to point and laugh at a poor, black teenager who comes from an America that we’d rather not acknowledge exists.
The media has consistently treated Jeantel as if she were some sassy alien life-form. TheNew York Daily News story about yesterday’s proceedings focused on Jeantel-as-sideshow, calling the cursive story an “especially cringe-worthy moment,” and noting that, “[a]t one point, the key prosecution witness blurted out, ‘That’s retarded, Sir’ in response to West’s suggestion that Martin attacked Zimmerman.” On Piers Morgan Tonight, Morgan repeated the phrase “creepy-ass cracker” as if it were some inscrutable bit of baby talk. The day before, panelist Jayne Weintraub disdainfully asserted that “it’s really not about this young woman’s … credibility, because her credibility, it’s a wash whatever her testimony is. Yes, she was a difficult witness. She was impossible.”…
Racial and socioeconomic stereotypes play differently in different contexts. The statements and mannerisms that make Jeantel a laughingstock now might have made her a viral video star outside the courtroom. As I was watching Jeantel’s testimony and the subsequent reaction, I couldn’t help thinking about Aisha Harris’ Slate piece from Mayabout the “fairly recent trend of ‘hilarious’ black neighbors, unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a ‘colorful’ style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class.” Charles Ramsey, Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown—these people caught white America’s attention in part because they so blatantly violated normative behavior. If Jeantel would’ve been filmed saying “That’s retarded, sir” to some reporter on the streets outside her house, the Internet might well be singing her praises. Black people are celebrated when they play the fool in the proper setting.
The implication of all the social media chatter and news coverage is clear: Rachel Jeantel was out of place in a courtroom. The flipside of that implication is clear, too: Rachel Jeantel should go back to the ghetto where she belongs. In fact, that’s the whole point of the Trayvon Martin case, which has become a referendum on how comfort and privilege deal with the unfamiliar. Before Martin died, he was dehumanized. No matter whose story you believe, it’s clear that George Zimmerman looked at a young black kid walking through a gated community and decided that he wasn’t supposed to be there. He responded by following him, approaching him, and … it’s up to you to decide what you think happened next.
The dehumanization of Rachel Jeantel—the laughter, the disbelief—is rooted in the same attitude that causes people to treat unarmed black kids with suspicion, to follow them around subdivisions for no good reason. I rarely agree with Nancy Grace, but yesterday on HLN she made a decent point. “Oh, everybody can laugh all they want to. She can’t read cursive. Or that she has nicknames she goes by that some people may laugh at; this one is ‘Diamond Eugene.’ You know what? Laugh all you want to. Nobody ever said that a murder trial was a tea party, where everybody had perfect manners and spoke perfectly. That’s not what this is about.”
And she’s right. A lot of the people in our jails and prisons come from poor black neighborhoods, and the witnesses in their trials are often made uncomfortable by courtrooms and judges and aggressive defense attorneys. Dismissing them and what they have to say because of their grammar and demeanor says more about us than it does about them. Rachel Jeantel can’t understand cursive. We can’t understand Rachel Jeantel. Which is worse?
Indeed, language remains as a huge barrier to the lower class entry into the professional middle-class world. Poor black Americans speak a different language, with it’s own grammatical and sentence structure, no less complex than the King’s English. That language, sometimes referred to as ebonics, brands them, and like the colorful names given to some of their children. In my America, I’ve got an office full of folks whose names I have to work to pronounce from India, Pakistan, China, and Russia. Yet I don’t see Igor, or Akhmed not getting a job interview because of their name. I’ve never met a Shawnte that wasn’t black American. And by almost every study done on racial discrimination in employment, Shawnte’s resume is 6 times more likely to be rejected without an interview than Heather’s even with identical qualifications.
Jon McWhorter pointed out something in his column yesterday, in his article Rachel Jeantel Explained, Linguistically. The point being, if you peel off the racism, what Rachel said made sense.
Yes, she was dissimulating in pretending that Trayvon Martin’s referring to Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” wasn’t “racial”—of course it was. Cracker is today’s “honkey,” a word now about as antique as The Jeffersons in which George used it so much. It is both descriptive and pejorative, although it’s important to note that according to Jeantel, Martin was not calling Zimmerman a cracker to his face but when trying to give his friend on the phone an update on the situation.
The important thing is that it made perfect sense for Martin to use that word to describe a white man chasing him for no reason. Few fully understand that the tension between young black men and the police (and by extension, security guards, traffic cops and just about any sort of watchman) is the main thing keeping America from getting past race. If ten years went by without a story like the Martin case we’d be in a very different country.
There are several possible reasons why Jeantel feigned on whether calling someone a cracker was racially-motivated. It could be because she wants to protect her dead friend. It could be because she’s extremely uncomfortable. Much of her irritable reticence is predictable of someone of modest education reacting to an unfamiliar type of interrogation on the witness stand. As natural as many educated people find direct questions, they are culturally rather unusual worldwide, an artifice of educational procedure. In oral cultures – i.e. most cultures— direct questions are processed as abrupt and confrontational. In that, Jeantel is operating at a clear disadvantage.
Yet one problem Jeantel is not having is with English itself. Many are seeing her as speaking under some kind of influence from the Haitian Creole that is her mother’s tongue, but that language has played the same role in her life that Yiddish did in George Gershwin’s – her English is perfect.
It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley. They’re just different rules. If she says to the defense lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you” it’s not because it’s Haitian—black people around the country use what is called the preterite “had,” which I always heard my Philadelphia cousins using when I was a kid.
Most successful black people in this country speak two languages. They are both English. You want to succeed as a black person in America – you learn white English.
It never ceases to amaze me how many people from Foreign lands can come to this country and get advanced degrees… Who can’t speak, and definitely can’t construct a sentence or simple paragraph in English.
And that is why the court system is on trial in the Trayvon Martin case – and indeed our entire society.