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Opinion

Trayvon Martin: the crime of being black, male, and wearing a hoodie

Whatever happens to neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, the dialogue on race must go on. Media perpetually associate criminality with black males. Legislators criminalize black dress. And the criminal justice system disproportionately penalizes black men and boys.

By Charlton McIlwain / March 27, 2012

Jajuan Kelley wears a Skittles wrapper over his mouth during a March 26 rally in memory of Trayvon Martin in Atlanta. Martin was the unarmed 17-year-old killed by a Florida neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, while returning from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea.

David Goldman/AP

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New York

Geraldo Rivera faced public outrage last week when he criticized Trayvon Martin for walking the streets of his father’s fiancée’s Florida community wearing a hoodie. But Mr. Rivera was right to highlight the racial risks associated with black men’s dress.

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The clothes many black males wear and how they wear them are often racialized in ways that make black men and boys criminally suspect. So it wasn’t Rivera’s observation that was wrong-headed. It was his claims about who is responsible that were wildly misguided.

Rivera’s observations are about the relationship between race, dress, and perceptions of criminality – a reality worth exposing at every turn. But he places blame on the Martins for not making their son sufficiently aware of the risks that his stereotyped dress made him vulnerable to. Rivera should have directed his blame elsewhere: news media that perpetually associate criminality with black males; legislators who frequently criminalize certain styles of black dress; and a criminal justice system all too willing to disproportionately monitor, harass, arrest, and incarcerate black boys and men because of mere “suspicion.”

Studies by public-opinion researchers over the past two decades bear out a familiar pattern. First, local television news primarily reports on violent crime. 

Second, television news reporters use images that disproportionately highlight black perpetrators, and often, black victims as well.

Third, landmark studies by political scientists and communication scholars have demonstrated that local television news viewers tend to identify blacks with crime and vise-versa – so much so that viewers’ beliefs about black male criminality are exaggerated far beyond the evidence of actual crime reports.

Fourth and finally, dark-skinned black male criminals are the most memorable perpetrators of violent crimes. Research indicates that images of black men committing violent crimes stick in people’s minds longer than those of white criminals.

It’s no surprise then that 72 percent of 100,000 participants in Harvard University’s long-running Project Implicit study – which measures automatic attitudes about race – automatically associate blacks with weapons, and whites with harmless objects. And this is the case for people from all racial backgrounds, not just whites (which, by the way, we should keep in mind as we try to assess George Zimmerman’s motivations).

In concert with media, state and local government entities throughout the United States frequently criminalize styles of dress worn by black males through local ordinances. The most frequent and pervasive of these has been ordinances against “sagging” – a style of dress where pants hang below the waist. Such dress is almost exclusively associated with black males in particular and hip-hop culture more generally.

Depending on whether one is in Flint, Mich., Albany, N.Y., Georgia, Fort Worth, Texas, anywhere in the state of Florida, or on a cross-country flight, one might be fined, arrested, ejected from public transportation, kicked out of school, or removed from a plane for wearing pants below the waist.

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