WASHINGTON The trial of George Zimmerman, accused of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, inevitably and quickly devolved into a contest of who is more racist the victim or the accused? The question was inevitable because the prosecution is basing its case largely on the suggestion that Zimmerman profiled the 17-year-old black teen, allegedly deciding that he was a potential threat by virtue of his race.
This assumption was somewhat complicated Thursday during testimony by 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin's who was talking to him by cell phone shortly before he was shot. Sidebar: Poor Jeantel. Whether she is a credible witness will be determined by the jury, but the rest of us really ought to cut the girl some slack. She is young, obviously playing on alien turf and having a tough enough time on the witness stand without further commentary. She may, indeed, be the best argument yet for keeping cameras out of the courtroom, but that is another discussion.
Jeantel's contribution to the race discussion included a quote she attributed to Martin when he told her a "creepy-ass cracker" was watching him. No doubt Zimmerman did seem creepy. He was following Martin after all, who, as far as anyone knows with certainty, was merely walking home from a convenience store. Does Martin's use of "cracker" mean he was a racist and, therefore, may have instigated the struggle that, according to the defense, therefore compelled Zimmerman to shoot Martin in self-defense? Jeantel told defense attorney Don "Knock-Knock" West that, no, she doesn't consider "cracker" a racist term. Apparently most whites don't either. In street interviews aired Thursday, CNN found that whites are not as offended by the term "cracker" as they are by the N-word.
For the record, there's no evidence that Zimmerman ever used the N-word.
So what about "cracker?" Is it ever or always an insult? And what might we infer by Martin's use of it to describe his pursuer? Merriam- Webster defines cracker as: usually disparaging: a poor usually Southern white; capitalized: a native or resident of Florida or Georgia used as a nickname.
But the best explanation of crackers can be found in "The Cracker Kitchen," a cookbook and story collection by novelist and proud cracker Janis Owens. It is both a cultural defense and literary critique of the poor, white folks whence Owens (and most of us Scots-Irish) came an unfrilly valentine pressed between recipes for fried frog legs and baked armadillo. The daughter of a fire-breathing Pentecostal preacher, Owens traces "cracker" to William Shakespeare's "The Life and Death of King John:" "What cracker is this same that deafe our eares with this abundance of superfluous breath?" Now there's an invective worth memorizing for future hurling.
Native-born to Florida's panhandle, aka Alabama's Riviera, Owens has embraced her crackerhood and uses the term endearingly, just as black Americans often use the N-word, recovered from racist whites, to refer to one another. Similarly, Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" includes a chapter celebrating the C-word, effectively stealing it back from those who use it to denigrate women. Reclaiming ownership of an offensive word is a revolutionary act that strips the term of its power to wound. Call it linguistic dis- armament.
"Cracker" may be a pejorative in some circles. It may even be used to insult a white person. But it clearly lacks the grievous, historical freight of the other.
Martin's use of the term "cracker" doesn't make him a racist any more than Zimmerman's resentment of "punks" necessarily makes him a murderous racial profiler. These words, and the case built upon them, ultimately may prove little more than an abundance of superfluous breath.
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP