Guilt, Innocence, and Hoodies
Thoughts on the Trayvon Martin tragedy
22 March 2012
Lets start with the vital fact: the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida was an unspeakable tragedy. Though the circumstances remain in dispute—the shooter, George Zimmerman, claims he shot in self-defense—Martin was unarmed and not involved in criminal behavior of any kind. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that he was a responsible kid from a good family. As his devasted mother says, My son wasnt doing anything but walking on the sidewalk. Watching his parents on TV this past week, its been all but impossible not to identify with their pain and devasting sense of loss.
And, yes, one can also appreciate the outrage of many (if not the reflexive faux outrage of so much of the liberal press) over the way Florida authorities have handled the case so far. If the evidence suggests culpability on Zimmermans part, he should be indicted and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
But then theres the Million Hoodie March—the New York demonstration, wherein participants (though only about 1,000) were urged to don the garment young Trayvon was wearing when he was killed. This is emblematic of where the entire American race conversation veers into the land of make-believe. The pretense is that the hoodie is an innocuous clothing item or, at any rate, that it is unfairly seen as carrying negative associations. Theres a word for this: nonsense. The hoodie isnt like a lettermans jacket or a t-shirt or a pair of jeans. It does indeed carry associations—for many, ominous ones. Like pants worn low to reveal the shorts underneath, hoodies are part of a style favored by gangbangers and drug dealers and others who hold life exceedingly cheap; which is to say, under certain circumstances, it is apt to heighten anothers uncertainty and fear, and bring potential danger for the wearer.
Those demanding justice for Trayvon Martin are quick to define Zimmerman as a trigger-happy racist, and its possible that he is—though some who know him, including at least one black neighbor, reportedly dispute that characterization. But whats beyond question is that for the hoodie marchers, real-life experience isnt supposed to matter. Theyd serve the memory of Trayvon Martin far better by speaking a difficult truth, one that goes far beyond the particulars of this terrible case: as long as so many underclass kids continue to act as predators, the negative assumptions they create will unfairly affect the lives of millions of decent black kids.
Everyone knows this is so—even Jesse Jackson. Jackson has said many embarrassing and even disgraceful things in his long public life, but the statement he surely most regrets is when he famously told the truth. There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—and then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.