If you haven’t heard of Rachel Jeantel, described by many as the prosecution’s star witness in the Trayvon Martin trial and the last person (other than his alleged murderer) to speak to Martin before his death, you must have spent some quality time under a rock the last few days. People have been talking about Jeantel’s testimony on social media since the moment she took the stand, the blogosphere and mainstream media have been analyzing that reaction since last week, and now we’re here with our take on their analysis.
Reaction to the key witness on social media was as divided as it was swift. There was the usual crowd of racists and borderline racists (perhaps there’s some overlap between that reliably vocal group and supporters of defendant George Zimmerman), who attacked Jeantel for everything from her weight to her English to her perceived lack of intelligence. A few days later a cursory Google search for “Rachel Jeantel” yields results as smarmily racist as this…
…and as maliciously tasteless as this. There were plenty of critics in the prosecution’s camp as well, with numerous Tweets expressing concern that Jeantel’s testimony would damage the prosecution’s case or reflect poorly on people of color. On the other side were the young woman’s supporters, those who expressed sympathy for her difficult situation or applauded her for her “authenticity” and bravery. As usual, Internet commentators and the mainstream media were quick to analyze the meaning of all of this analysis and what it says about the state of race relations in America. We think that conversation is as revealing as the one it seeks to understand.
For the mainstream media, the process has required a host of experts. CNN interviewed a jury consultant with expertise in body language to determine whether or not Jeantel’s “non-verbal cues” might affect her credibility. The Huffington Post brought in a sociology professor from Vanderbilt to explain why Jeantel might distrust law enforcement, and Time magazine’s most popular article as of this writing attempts to explain the 19-year old “linguistically,” answering questions their readers might have about the origins of the word “cracker” or Jeantel’s grammar. With the possible exception of the jury consultant, it’s hard to imagine such distinguished commentators being necessary to interpret the meaning of, for example, a middle-aged, college-educated white male witness.
As well-meaning as it all is, the fact that news outlets like Time and CNN needed PhDs to explain how Jeantel speaks or her hostility towards the crossing attorney prove the point of commentators such as Rachel Samara, who argues in the widely reposted piece “What White People Don’t Understand About Rachel Jeantel” that:
It seems the middle-aged white men on both sides of this case are totally unaware of what Rachel’s life is like – a 19-year-old high school student of Haitian descent who knows nothing more than the few block radius she has grown up in. The cultural differences here are exponential.
The mainstream media’s engagement with Rachel Samara, which has operated on the likely correct assumption that many of their viewers are baffled by what they see in Rachel Jeantel, suggests that it’s not just the lawyers who are “totally unaware of what Rachel’s life is like.” The tragedy that has propelled Jeantel into the national eye is a reminder of just how ugly the consequences of that disconnect can be in reality. Already, many have suggested that the (largely white) jury’s inability to understand or sympathize with this nineteen-year old may affect the outcome of the trial. We think it’s not hard to see how that same disconnect could have lead to it.
Photo from the Electronic Urban Report.