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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.

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These ordinances against “sagging” and other forms of black male dress have not only become a way of criminalizing clothing and those who wear them, they have become a means for excluding black males from public and private venues.

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In fact, a rash of lawsuits have been filed in recent years attacking the discriminatory nature of nightclub dress codes. One of the more explicit of such codes, by an Indiana nightclub, prohibited – among other things – loose-fitting pants, baseball caps, hair pics, grills (jewelry worn over teeth), and gold chains. In another example, an ACLU lawsuit against a Virginia Beach nightclub alleged that patrons wearing cornrows and dreadlocks were prevented from entering the club because the manager did not want “hip-hoppers” in the club.

So news and entertainment media paint a portrait of black males as criminals, while public institutions use black male clothing and styles of dress as an index for excluding them based on their perceived penchant for criminal activity.

Both of these realities underlie widespread police policies that profile, monitor, harass, and often arrest black males because they are “suspect.” The most prominent and widely reported of such practices in recent years is the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” practice, which produced a record 684,000 stops in 2011. Blacks and Latinos comprised 87 percent of those stopped (they make up about 24 percent of the New York City population).

Some – the NYPD included – say that police just go where the crime is. But according to a 2008 report by the Center for Constitutional Rights, while stop-and-frisk rates in New York City are high, actual arrests are low. Arrest rates from these stops are about 4 percent for blacks, with similar percentages for all racial groups.

A recent New York Daily News article cited Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito (D) of East Harlem: “My community [which is on the top 10 list of stop-and-frisk neighborhoods] doesn’t have one of the highest rates of crime. We don’t believe the argument that the NYPD is saying, that it’s to reduce crime is valid.” 

What is at issue here is not police officers’ ability to use tactics that stem the tide of violent crime – because the statistics show that these tactics do not. What is really at issue is the fact that the weight of police ineffectiveness to combat violent crime gets lightened on the backs of black and brown bystanders.

According to an internal police department study by the LAPD covering the year 2004-2005, blacks – relative to whites – were 127 percent more likely to be stopped, 76 percent more likely to be searched, and 29 percent more likely to be arrested.


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