Saturday, March 31, 2012

Nation N' the hoodie:
Trayvon Martin and America

THE GENTLEMAN from Illinois is recognized. Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush is on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, at the mike, speaking truth to power. Congressman Rush tells the House that the Feb. 26 slaying of Trayvon Martin in Florida “is indeed an American tragedy. Too often, this violent act that resulted in the murder of Trayvon Martin is repeated in the streets of our nation. I applaud the young people all across the land for making a statement about hoodies, about the real hoodlums in this nation. ... “

Then, Rush peels off his suit jacket to reveal underneath … a hoodie, one like any other of the hundreds of thousands that have surfaced since Martin was shot to death 24 days after his 17th birthday wearing a similar garment while on a mission through a gated-community neighborhood in pursuit of nothing more ominous, more dangerous than a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona iced tea.

“Racial profiling has to stop, Mr. Speaker,” Rush said. “Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.”

The gentleman will suspend. The gentleman will suspend. The gentleman is out of order. The sergeant-at-arms will remove the gentleman from Illinois.

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Call it a stunt or a strategy (and people in the blogosphere have pretty much done both), Bobby Rush’s breach of House dress-code decorum made a point about the death of Trayvon Benjamin Martin and the way it’s permeated into the wider American experience, and apparently resonated with a refreshingly broad cross-section of the country.

Martin’s killing has aroused something akin to soul-searching in a nation ill at ease with young black men in general; to go by what’s been worse at numerous protest rallies on behalf of Trayvon’s memory and of his deeply grieving parents, the makers of pullover athletic garments must be enjoying robust sales right about now. For all the wrong reasons.

In New York City, a “Million Hoodie March” was convened to drive home the point that death by fashion choice isn’t acceptable, or shouldn’t be in an enlightened society. What seemed to have emerged in the last week was an admirable attempt to universalize the connection between Trayvon Martin and the rest of us, and do it by adopting the deeply anonymizing sports apparel that too many Americans have equated with violent crime (if it’s worn by young black males, anyway).

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Marc Morial of the National Urban League made the point further that night, on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann”: “I think he makes the point that a man, an African-American man, wearing a hoodie is not, by definition, suspicious. In America, which looks on it that way, that's the very essence of what we mean when we talk about racial profiling …”

This bid to “take back the hoodie” had its detractors. We might have guessed it wouldn’t be long before situational moralists raised their voices. Geraldo Rivera, a television personality forever in search of relevance, obliged us, jumping into the controversy via Twitter on March 22, with a tweet whose insensitivity to the human tragedy was breathtaking:

Rivera was roundly condemned in what he called “a viral avalanche” of tweets — and, apparently after his son Gabriel criticized him for the comment, and telling the old man he was ashamed of what he said. In an e-mail Tuesday to Politico, Rivera walked back the ridiculous:

“By putting responsibility on what kids wear instead of how people react to them I have obscured the main point that someone shot and killed an unarmed teenager,” he said.

“I apologize to anyone offended by what one prominent black conservative called my ‘very practical and potentially life-saving campaign' urging black and Hispanic parents not to let their children go around wearing hoodies.”

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BUT RIVERA'S squishy quasi-apology obscures the central point of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the point that the hoodies only dramatize. For young black men in America, the hoodie is a symbol for the sense of emptiness, the agonizing drift they feel in a country that criminalizes them presumptively. A nation in which black children and teenagers find themselves more often the victims of the same violence that white Americans more generally imagine.

In her lovely essay “Walking While Black,” published by BET News, Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Childrens Defense Fund, explored the differences:

“In 2008 and 2009, 2,582 Black children and teens were killed by gunfire. Black children and teens were only 15 percent of the child population, but 45 percent of the 5,740 child and teen gun deaths in those two years. Black males 15 to 19 years-old were eight times as likely as White males to be gun homicide victims.”

There’s no escaping the fact that such dire statistics stem from something going on longer than the hoodie’s been at the root of our current urban sartorial paranoia. It’s bigger than what we wear.

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Consider a different picture of Trayvon Martin — not the one with him smiling in the HOLLISTER T-shirt, and not the black and white shot of the teenager in a hoodie, the ghost picture that, right or wrong, may become the searing Madonna image of a young man gone too soon.

Consider the picture of Trayvon in his Bulldogs football uniform, a young man on purpose, a young man of purpose clearly eager to be a part of the wider picture of the world, to contribute to something bigger than he is.

This is Trayvon Martin in another manifestation. Trayvon Martin in another set of clothes that people, Floridians, Americans would no doubt have found a reason to fear him in.

The deeper tragedy of the Trayvon Martin incident is how little we learn from things like the Trayvon Martin incident.

Image credits: Rush: C-SPAN. Edelman: via BET News. Trayvon Martin: The Martin Family.

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