We've all heard this chain of reasoning before. If she's not dressed like Mother Teresa, then it's a woman's own fault when men whistle and yell sexist comments at her as she walks down the street, sexually harass her at work, or even rape her at a house party. It's not the patriarchal and socially sanctioned norms of society that allow and fuel this behavior; it's the survivor's fault for provoking it.
As Republicans continue to wage their war on women, Geraldo Rivera's recent comments, "urging the parents of black and Latino" youth to "not let their children go out wearing hoodies"--Trayvon Martin being allowed to do so is supposedly partly to blame for his murder--serves as an important reminder of how the same problematic logic applied to women also guides many Americans' way of thinking about issues related to race.
Growing up in East L.A. during the early-1990s, there were always some fashion trends--at first it was certain colors, then specific hair-styles, followed by baggy pants--that teachers, police officers, the media, and even many people in my own community constantly blamed for everything from violence and crime to the supposed lack of motivation and aspirations of young Chicanos, like myself, in the barrio. Today, apparently, it's hoodies.
When I was Trayvon's age, my friends and I were constantly pulled-over at gunpoint by the LAPD and asked whether we had weapons or drugs in our car. The excuse for stopping us was always that we "fit the description" of someone the officers were looking for. None of us were gang members, had ever been arrested or broken any laws. But many (if not most) youth in my neighborhood at the time fit the vague description of what a "criminal looked like"--poor and working class people of color. We were deemed presumably dangerous because in the minds of these mostly white, but sometimes brown cops (who often treated us even worse), all Latino youth were seen as probable threats. Consequently, they felt it was their job to "serve and protect" the City of L.A. by racial profiling, always following, and harassing us.
This same way of thinking may have led George Zimmerman to stalk and fatally shoot Trayvon, but to characterize this murder as simply the deplorable actions of one "nutty neighborhood watch guy" prevents us from recognizing that young men of color across the country are constantly killed by police, and sometimes other "neighborhood vigilantes," because of institutionally racist stereotypes. Today, as it was during the 1980s and 90s, the problem isn't the external styles of dress of racial and ethnic minorities, but the racist internal mindsets created, maintained, and perpetuated every day by the mainstream media and bigoted politicians.
As civil rights lawyer and scholar Michelle Alexander has thoroughly demonstrated in her book The New Jim Crow, when tragedies like this occur, the media, politicians, and the general public fail to discuss the structural inequalities that contribute to, and often create, the poverty, racial profiling, over-policing, biased sentencing, and hyper-incarceration that have come to demonize inner-city men of color in the minds of Americans. As a result, while in the past members of the Ku Klux Klan use to hide their true identities behind "white hoods," today's racism in the United States hides behind the "law and order" rhetoric embodied in the same type of "Stand Your Ground" gun laws that allegedly allow "regular citizens" like Zimmermann to act on the racist logic and stereotypes that are institutionalized in American culture and politics.
In gentrified inner-city neighborhoods across the nation, white "hipsters" also wear hoodies, have tattoos, and sag their pants. Yet in the minds of far too many people in the United States, including cops and "neighborhood watch captains," these youth aren't seen as potential threats because they don't carry the burdens of being born poor and black or brown. It's the flawed cultural logic and actions produced by systematic and structural racism, expressed in Geraldo Rivera's comments, not wearing hoodies that causes society to think that all men of color are threats and, as a result, can contribute to us being shot after buying a bag of skittles.
While Zimmerman should be tried and brought to justice, until we begin to "unhood" and deal with the systemic issues that produce the racial stereotypes and laws that led to this black youth's murder, many more kids of color will continue to die, most of whose names we'll never hear about.