America’s ‘hoodie’ problem

The 'not guilty' verdict for George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin has provoked a great wave of discussion, anger and a kind of national navel gazing – both on the specifics of the case and the nation’s larger struggle with its racial realities. The Harvard-educated black sociologist, WEB DuBois, surveying the troubled texture of black/white relations in America a century ago, had famously predicted, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.” And given what has transpired in America since George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin, it seems that such a condition remains fully in force for the United States. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

There are actually relatively few undisputed facts of the case. Seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin was walking alone in the evening in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, a year and a half ago. Martin was wearing the standard youth uniform, including the ubiquitous hooded sweatshirt, or “hoodie”. Hold onto that image, we’ll use it again, later.

Meanwhile, George Zimmerman, a security guard living in that community, was driving around, involved in a neighbourhood watch patrol. Zimmerman was more than a decade older than the teenaged Martin. Zimmerman saw Martin walking alone, called the police and, then, despite a specific recommendation from the police dispatcher that he restrain himself from directly engaging with the teenager, and rather let the police handle things, Zimmerman got out of his car and confronted Martin. They struggled; Zimmerman sustained head injuries; and then fatally shot Martin.

A bit reluctantly, Florida prosecutors eventually charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. At the end of the trial, the judge issued a 27-page set of jury instructions (often seen by jury behaviour specialists as a goad to juries to acquit) to a panel comprised of six women – five white and one Hispanic. At the end of their deliberations, the jury declined to convict Zimmerman, thereby acquitting him of all charges – determining that he had acted in self-defence. Oh, and one other thing, Zimmerman, despite his rather WASP-ish (or at least Teutonic) sounding name, turns out also to regard himself ethnically as Hispanic, by virtue of one of his parents coming from Peru. So it wasn’t a perfect black/white thing.

Nevertheless, stemming from the original incident, the ensuing trial and then the actual verdict, beyond the courtroom and across the country, the racial narrative has taken hold of every discussion about the case. In so doing, it has burned its way into the national consciousness, something like the continuing drip of lemon juice into one of the nation’s seemingly never-to-be healed wounds. Fortunately, responses have not, so far at least, followed the pattern of rioting that became burned into national memory after Martin Luther King’s assassination or the arrest of Rodney King.

Surrounding the courtroom drama in concentric circles have been a growing controversy over Florida’s (and other states’) so-called “stand your ground” law, and the deeply vexed question of racial profiling. While neither were explicitly part of Zimmerman’s courtroom defence, these two issues have been fuelling a vociferous national debate ever since the verdict was announced.

Stand your ground laws effectively say an ordinary citizen can “stand his ground” against a criminal or suspected criminal (or presumably even a potential criminal), confront that individual and then even use the threat of lethal force to subdue him. The obvious objection to such a law is that it allows virtually anyone to turn himself into a one-person vigilante force, even if it means someone is hurt or killed in the process.

As the peaceful but angry protests over the Zimmerman verdict grew, even US federal Attorney General Eric Holder expressed his anger over such laws and vowed to put his shoulder to the wheel to get them all repealed. And in the wake of the courtroom verdict, dozens of petitions, rallies, and marches have protested the verdict, those “stand your ground” laws and the police operational methodology of racial profiling.

This debate over “stand your ground” has taken off in tandem with that even more troubling question of racial profiling. Simply put, racial profiling means using a putatively rational process of putting together race, dress codes, behaviour and some notional sense of criminal statistics to determine, even in the absence of any actual evidence of hostile or criminal acts, that a black teenage boy wearing his typical teenage gear, who is swaggering a lot, making lots of noise, displaying some street  attitude and being in a place not logically his own space or neighbourhood, is, a priori, a fit subject to be watched, stopped and questioned closely and aggressively. Interestingly, a new feature film that came out on circuit just as the Zimmerman verdict had been announced, Fruitvale Station describes another true story that has many of the hallmarks of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.

As the Washington Post had written in its review, it is, “Fruitvale Station, a modest but astonishingly accomplished urban drama that arrives in Washington area theaters Friday as an eerie example of art not just imitating life, but fusing with it. The movie, which was written and directed by first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler, tells the true story of Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back by a white transit police officer — who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter — in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 in an Oakland, Calif., rail station.”

In fact, for generations and generations, profiling has been the order of things. This reaches back to the days of slavery when a black person in the South away from the place of his indentures was presumed to be a runaway slave unless he could brandish a letter of permission from his owner. More contemporarily, memories include the highly publicised lynching death of Emmett Till after he was arrested for supposedly flirting with a white girl. And it moves on to the present circumstances of any number of African Americans who have firsthand experience of being stopped or arrested for “driving while being black” – in the absence of any crime or perhaps on the pretext of the most niggling of driving miscues like a faulty tail light.

After hanging back for days from addressing the rising national rancour over the Zimmerman verdict (as well as those “stand your ground” laws and racial profiling behaviour), Barack Obama finally came into the White House Press Room – rather than scheduling a more formal address to the nation or in a previously scheduled speech – to speak without advance notice about this case. Well beyond his speech on race during his 2008 presidential campaign in the wake of the growing controversy over a racially incendiary sermon by his then-family preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s remarks after the Zimmerman verdict were particularly personal ones. In his comments, Obama made it clear his own fate as a teenager could just easily have been Trayvon Martin’s fate – if their respective situations or his own behaviour had been just a bit different during his early years.

Then, veteran Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote a provocative column on the trial and the ensuing national debate that ignited its own little controversy. Cohen, a reporter who had gotten his start as a police and night court reporter, argued that racial profiling – or at least the profiling of black teenaged boys dressed a certain way – really was a rational way for law enforcement officials to deal with crime, even if it meant that some innocents might end up being discomfited in the process. As Cohen wrote, “I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognise. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist. But I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognising the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman.”

After all, no one realistically expects an 80-year old person, walking with the help of a Zimmer Frame, and wearing hearing aids and glasses with lenses the thickness of Coke bottle bottoms, to engage in bank heists. By contrast, black young adults wearing sunglasses, a “hoodie” sweatshirt, jeans worn low-rise, and expensive running shoes would seem to carry out a disproportionate number of the nation’s crimes. As a result, it can easily be argued that profiling is a rational, behaviourally efficient means of separating the sheep from goats in criminal terms. Well, maybe.

For many, perhaps most, white Americans, the reality of racial profiling and its impact on minority youth seems entirely rational – in just the way Cohen had set out the terms of the argument. Dress a certain way and you’re giving a 1000 watt illuminated signpost that you want to be seen as the kind of kid looking for a little action. Behave the right way and you have nothing to fear. But of course this flies in the face of folk and direct personal knowledge of that arrested for “driving while black” phenomenon – or Trayvon Martin’s experience. (Parenthetically, this very same complaint is part of the contemporary world of people who are – or look like they are – of Middle Eastern descent.)

But the writer has had his own personal experience with profiling – all without being an Arab or a teenaged black kid. About five years ago, he was transiting Kennedy Airport in New York City – en route to Florida from Johannesburg. After a full day’s worth of flying, he disembarked from his flight from Dubai to New York and was waiting for the final onward leg to Orlando. It was winter, the writer was chilled and feeling distinctly flu-ish, so on went his warm, comfortable, well-worn, grey hoodie sweatshirt, along with a pair of prescription sunglasses to give his aching eyes a bit of respite while waiting for that last flight.

Amazingly, despite being in his late fifties, with more than a touch of grey in his beard and being a bit generous around the waist, he was suddenly confronted by two armed (and very officious) airport guards asking what his business was and why was he in this airport dressed like this. Brandishing a ticket and hand luggage was not, initially, sufficient evidence to explain the obvious. Eventually after an extended, and not entirely friendly conversation, the light bulb went on – it became clear that it was the jeans, that hoodie, the sunglasses and an unshaven look that was more than enough to meet somebody’s lunatic profile of likely troublemakers in an airport.

Ridiculous, you say? Here’s another story. The writer’s aged grandfather once went to his neighbourhood post office – complete with that Zimmer Frame, hearing aids and those thick glasses. He couldn’t drive and had been transported by his daughter who had then gone off to do a bit of shopping. Finished with his post office business, my grandfather was standing outside smoking a cigar when a bank robbery happened down the block. The police quickly arrived, subdued the would-be robbers – and then confronted the old man to question him extensively for his presumed role as a canny lookout for the robbers who were now handcuffed and lying on the ground under the gimlet eyes of one of the police.

Profiling rankled the writer when it happened to him, even if it soon enough became just a great after-dinner story. But what must this kind of thing do to generation after generation of African American families who must eventually take the time – as Eric Holder himself had told the press – to have that conversation with their sons. Be careful how you carry yourself, be very careful how you look at people – and above all be extremely careful how you react to the police – at a traffic signal, a street crossing, in a convenience store, or while being out for an evening walk. Only now it seems the Zimmerman verdict may have served to add armed, overly enthusiastic, volunteers on neighbourhood watch patrols to the list of people one must be very careful about as well. Especially if you own a hoodie. DM

Read more:

  • Video and Transcript of Obama’s Complete Remarks on Race at the New York Times
  • President Offers a Personal Take on Race in U.S. at the New York Times
  • Racism vs. reality, a column by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post
  • Richard Cohen Thinks Trayvon Martin Was ‘Understandably Suspected’ Because of Blackness, Hoodie in New York Magazine
  • Black boys denied the right to be young, a column in rebuttal to Cohen’s column by Eugene Robinson, in the Washington Post
  • Florida Case Spurs Painful Talks Between Black Parents and Their Children in the New York Times
  • ‘Fruitvale Station’ offers light instead of heat days after George Zimmerman verdict in the Washington Post
  • Trayvon’s Death Is an Outrage, But …, a column by Joe Klein
  • In Illinois, Obama led fight on racial profiling in the AP
  • Racial Disparities in Life Spans Narrow, but Persist in the New York Times
  • Trayvon Martin’s death: Could something similar happen to my son, too? (Jolene Ivey represents Prince George’s County in House of Delegates) in the Washington Post
  • DOJ: Don’t return gun to George Zimmerman while we’re investigating in the Orlando Sentinel
  • Hundreds in Eatonville protest Zimmerman verdict, vow change in the Orlando Sentinel
  • Obama is the wrong person to lead discussion about race, a column by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post

Photo: Posters announcing the “Million Youth March” in support of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager killed by George Zimmerman, are spread on the ground in New York July 20, 2013. Across the nation, hundreds marched in the heat of a summer Saturday to rally at federal courthouses in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities, demanding “Justice for Trayvon.” REUTERS/Carlo Allegri


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