WASHINGTON (AP) — At first, the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white neighborhood watch volunteer was playing out like many previous tragedies that cut short the lives of young black men.
Soon however, it became obvious that sorting out racial dynamics in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin would not be simple. Police described the shooter, George Zimmerman, as white. His father called him a "Spanish speaking minority" with many black relatives and friends.
While public outrage simmered over perceptions that local police didn't do enough to investigate Martin's death, possible racial motives on Zimmerman's part became tough to pin down. His background and associations cut across racial lines, and his racial identity doesn't fit neatly into a box.
"It's easy to label this as an act of white racism, but it's really an act of stereotyping, which many groups are capable of and it is occurring in the context of extraordinarily permissive laws," said Manuel Pastor, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
On Twitter, there was genuine confusion about Zimmerman's race. Is he Latino or white? Is Hispanic a race, or not? Shouldn't he, a Latino, have known better than to engage in racial profiling? Might he be Jewish, based on his last name? Many said his Hispanic lineage had nothing to do with the fact that the justice system had failed Martin, while some said Zimmerman's identity was very important.
Hispanic people can be black, white, Asian or mixed. Some 18 million Latinos checked the "some other race" category on their 2010 Census forms - which admonished in bold letters that Hispanic is not a race. So many Hispanics identified themselves as white, the overall number of white people in the United States increased.
"We sit in this in between place in the United States. In the U.S., when we think about race, it's usually black and white. ... Latinos complicate that dichotomy," said Cynthia Duarte, associate director of research for the Institute of Latino Studies at Notre Dame.
On voter registration forms, George Zimmerman identified himself as Hispanic, as did his mother. His father, Robert, listed himself as white on voter registration forms. Zimmerman's mother, Gladys, is originally from Peru.
Kay Hall, a former neighbor of the Zimmermans when they lived in Manassas, Va., said Zimmerman's mother spoke fluent English and Spanish but she's not certain if George Zimmerman or his brother spoke Spanish. She didn't remember Gladys sharing any stories about her life in Peru or seeing the family carrying out any traditional Peruvian cultural activities.
"I saw Hispanics, blacks, all kinds of people visiting over there," Hall said. "I don't think they had any kind of racial problems."
Neither Zimmerman nor his family members were available to comment about their family history.