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.

David Goldman/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

And contrary to the perception that such profiling is justified because blacks and Latinos commit more crimes, a 2011 report by The Leadership Conference finds that compared to whites who were stopped and frisked, blacks were 42 percent and Hispanics 32 percent less likely to be found with a weapon. Even comparing whites and blacks who consented to searches, police were 37 percent less likely to uncover weapons on black suspects, and about 24 percent less likely to uncover drugs or any other type of contraband than consensual searches of whites.

Frequent reviews of police department data across the US demonstrate that this pattern of disparate police treatment of blacks is increasingly the norm for police conduct, rather than an exception.

So was Trayvon Martin at risk for at least being suspected and followed because he was black? Unfortunately, yes – in Florida and many other parts of the US. Should his parents have warned him that dressing in a hoodie might exacerbate this risk? Perhaps. Dress and race are closely associated with criminality. Though, if they are like most black parents, they likely prepared their son to face racial discrimination. Are they ultimately to blame – even marginally – for his murder? Of course not.

Neo-conservative ideology makes it easy to blame individual victims for the discrimination and violence they face because of their racial group membership. And – if past practice is evidence, even liberals calling out for justice will limit that to the justice that Trayvon and his parents might receive by investigating and punishing – if charged and found guilty – his killer.

If change is to occur, we must first replace our exaggerated images of black male criminality with those more in line with reality, borne out by evidence.

For instance, a 2006 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics compared homicide victim and offender data over a 30-year period. It showed that the gap between black and white offenders is much smaller than what the images we see on television and film tell us. From 1976 to 2005, blacks account for 51 percent of all homicides perpetrators, whites 47 percent. Surprisingly homicides perpetrated by whites are more likely to be gang related.

We must be willing to start countering the scary black man narrative with statistics like these when children are still young. Recent developmental research shows that children pick up fear of people of different races from their parents, and do so at a very young age.

No matter how Trayvon Martin’s story ultimately ends, we would be remiss if we let the conversation it has instigated pass us by without serious consideration and concerted action.

Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. He is co-editor with Stephen M. Caliendo of “The Routledge Companion to Race and Ethnicity,” and co-author, also with Stephen M. Caliendo of “Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. elections.”

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