The picture above was tweeted by LeBron James along with the following hashtags: #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.
James (and we can assume, the Miami Heat) detect a broader issue in the slaying of Trayvon Martin in much the same way as Bomani Jones did in his thoughtful post on the subject: that while this tragic murder can easily be made a symbol of extreme racist hatred, this was not in fact a lynching. This was one person with a gun who saw a black man in a hoodie and presumed negative intentions. This is a subtle, insidious kind of racism that is far more difficult to legislate against, because it exists not on signs saying “whites only” right out in the open, but in the subconscious, where the bearer can hide it, and from it.
As revolting as Geraldo Rivera’s comments on the subject are, he articulates what I believe are genuine fears of many non-black people. Here’s his take, in all it’s unnerving bigotry:
I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was…When you see a black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid that confrontation,” Rivera continued. “Trayvon Martin, God bless him, an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hands. He didn’t deserve to die. But I bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.
Many people have taken the opportunity to castigate Rivera for saying this much, but stating that a difference in two people’s race changes how one interprets the same act ie- the difference between someone trying to be “gangsta” and someone trying to look like a “skater” shouldn’t offend our sense of political correctness. The unspoken agreement in white culture (the culture that dominates mainstream media content) to never confront the racism that lurks within except in the most transgressive cases isn’t progressive, it only perpetuates a “soft” bigotry that is continuing to segregate our country.
So what about LeBron? What about #WeAreTrayvon?
The message that the way a black man dresses can be interpreted as threatening is nothing new in the NBA. When the league’s dress code was put in place, it wasn’t so that Brad Miller wouldn’t wear a hoodie to a press conference, it was so that Allen Iverson would put on a blazer.
The NBA recognized that people were associating NBA players with thugs not based on the lives they lived off the court, or even really how they played from a functional standpoint, but by how they presented themselves culturally. The NBA would not be associated with the fears so jarringly laid out by Rivera. There’s no arguing that strategy has been a successful one for the NBA. But pandering to fear (especially racial), though a fierce tradition of large corporations and political parties, falls far short of admirable.
Everyone is stereotyped, in someway, by his or her appearance. No getting around it. There’s a reason NBA GMs think Kevin Love is doing the most with least. (The money quote from that Sherwood Strauss piece: “Hey white player, your talent is actually wisdom. Hey black player, your wisdom is actually talent. I am not sure how to correct these stereotypes, but can we at least acknowledge their power?”)
But when that stereotype is associated with a fear so profound that deadly force seems like a logical reaction, it’s way past the time to actively and consciously combat those associations. This is a fear that smothers empathy, destroys rationality and in this case ended the life of an innocent person.
There’s value in attacking Rivera and Zimmerman as symbols, insomuch as doing so sets the bounds of acceptable behavior in society. We cast them out, and affirm that we are not them, and will not be them. Perhaps going forward, people are less likely to make the same mistake so publicly.
But if you’re like me, you want to do something about this. There are political outlets, and joining the public chorus of disapproval isn’t nothing.
But when LeBron James and the Heat ask not to be stereotyped for their fashion sense, when they ask for justice, I hope we can offer more than anger on their behalf. Instead of simply directing judgmental invectives toward Zimmerman and Rivera, I wonder if we might do more by first earnestly examining our own individual fears and prejudices.