Hoodies, Color Lines, and Black Visibility
For more than a year Americans have aspired to rationally explain what moved George Zimmerman to kill his teenaged neighbor Trayvon Martin. Americans are constantly inundated with murder narratives that we blithely tolerate as the fabric of contemporary life, but Martin’s death evokes a deep anxiety over how we view others across the color line. Much of our collective anxiety reflects our apprehension that Zimmerman’s irrationality was fueled by the mere sight of an anonymous Black teen, perceiving a caricature of Blackness rather than a teenager out for Skittles.
Observers concerned with Zimmerman’s gaze have persistently fixed on Martin’s mundane hoodie. This week the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen painted a chillingly sympathetic portrait of Zimmerman: Cohen sympathizes with Zimmerman’s anxiety over an anonymous Black teen marked by a hoodie, and he rationalizes Zimmerman’s apprehensions with the reasoning that “the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime.” The Post contributor concludes that he “can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize.”
The link between hoodies and Black criminality has been echoed by the likes of Pat Robertson and Geraldo Rivera. In March 2012 Rivera concluded that “the hoodie is as responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman.” Rivera eventually apologized for arguing that “Trayvon Martin, you know God bless him, he was an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hands. He didn’t deserve to die. But I’ll 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.” In contrast to Rivera’s atonement, this week Pat Robertson weighed in defending Zimmerman’s apprehension of a stranger in a hoodie, saying that “There had been some crime in the area, and the criminals were wearing these hoods, and so, it’s one of those things.”
The hoodies’ untroubled link with criminality—and the suggestion that it is a “uniform” of Blackness–emerged quite recently. Hooded sweatshirts began to be produced by Champion in the 1930’s for warehouse laborers in the chill of upstate New York, and by the 1970s the hooded sweat-top was being worn by many athletes (in 1976, for instance, Rocky Balboa wore a hoodie as a working-class garment as he prepared to meet Apollo Creed). Hoodies began to secure an air of furtiveness in the 1970’s when graffiti artists and muggers seeking anonymity began to wear the top, but they were joined by hip hop and punk fans and skateboarders who embraced the partial cloaking of the hood without any substantial link to race or criminality.
The Oxford English Dictionary credits Roddy Doyle’s novel Snapper with perhaps first using the term hoodie to refer to a hooded sweatshirt in 1990. In 1994 The Independent linked the term hoodie to criminals—but not necessarily race–when they noted that “Street gangs also favour goose-down parkas with large hoods. Police have taken to calling the gangs ‘hoodies.’” The New York Times may have used the term first in May, 1996 when a police officer indicated that the friends of a Long Island robber “`gave him a hooded pullover sweatshirt—what they call a hoodie—and he wore that into the gas station.’” In 2002 Adelaide’s Sunday Mail saw the hoodie as part of an American urban style, which was an implicit reference to a somewhat ambiguously defined “Black America”: “Coming to you from the streets of New York, ghetto chic is the last word in urban cool. Young and edgy, the hot new look in casual wear is not about fitting in. It is about standing out…. It’s all about street-cred cool with a touch of retro high school gymnasium, inspired by trends from NYC’s underground.” This notion of “ghetto chic” invoked Black authenticity, but for most people outside America (and many in the US) that image almost certainly came from popular and consumer cultural representations. For many of these earliest observers, the hoodie provoked some anxieties because of its link to anonymity; its racialized hip hop roots were acknowledged in an essentially complimentary if naïve form that could not clearly articulate what these styles were appropriating.
The mood shifted outside the US in 2005. In 2005 a Kent shopping mall outlawed hoodies (worn by at least some shoplifters), leading New Statesman’s Dan Hancox to dub the hoodie “the most maligned item of clothing in decades.” Reporting on the hoodie ban at the Bluewater shopping mall in Kent, The Guardian suggested that “the hooded top can strike fear into the heart of even the most courageous among us.” Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott registered his support for Bluewater’s hoodie ban, calling the hoodie part of an “intimidating uniform” and detailing his own encounter with hoodie-clad thugs at a service station. The Guardian countered the stereotype of hooded criminality when it indicated that “the hooded top is part of our national costume.” A day after Prescott’s charges, The Times likewise seemed surprised that “It has taken just 72 hours for the `hoody’ to become the pariah of the fashion world. On Tuesday the hooded top was the must-have accessory for the young adult, the preferred leisurewear of boy bands, Olympic athletes and Boris Johnson. By Friday morning it was being described as the uniform of street gangs, thugs and criminals–needed for one purpose only: to evade detection by CCTV and the authorities.”
In the wake of Prescott’s comments, hoodies became enormously flexible symbols. Sunday Business accepted the premise that hoodies were symptomatic of deep-seated class fissures, arguing that Britain “is wealthier, healthier and more gainfully employed than at any point in history. So why is anti-social behaviour still so stubbornly high? Why are there hooded youths out there, terrorising neighbourhoods? The riddle of the `hoodies’ is one which stumps the British left.” Socialist Review responded that the bans simply boosted shopping centers’ “surveillance culture” and were transparent appeals to moral ideologues’ profits since the stores continued to sell hoodies.
A few of the earliest comments on hoodies acknowledged their roots in hip hop, with Angela McRobbie telling The Guardian in 2005 that the hoodies’ “point of origin is obviously black American hip-hop culture . . . Musically and stylistically, it projects menace and danger as well as anger and rage.” India Knight’s Sunday Times May 2005 column may have been the first British press report to link race to hoodies in the UK. Knight indicated that “speaking against hoodies sounds racist and creepy as the hoodie is a favourite of young black men. However, the truth of the matter is that they more often than not look scary and shadowy. Young white men in hoodies, ditto. And young brown men. Young men of any colour, in fact, with their faces obscured, standing around in the dark in menacing clusters.” Knight saw social behavior as a direct reflection of materiality, suggesting that “Your behaviour is dictated by what you wear and what you wear dictates your behaviour.” Sounding an opinion that Geraldo Rivera would repeat after Trayvon Martin’s death, Knight suggested that “Young black men in hoodies do themselves no favours: they immediately get shunned by anyone who sees them, regardless of the fact that they may well be paragons. Young white men in hoodies don’t fare much better: they are instantly identified with the trashy, violent underclass.”
A year after the Bluewater ban and Prescott’s support for it, Conservative candidate David Cameron weighed in with a prescient reading of the hoodies’ anonymity, indicating that “We–the people in suits–often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters. But, for young people, hoodies are often more defensive than offensive. They’re a way to stay invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, blend in, don’t stand out.” Yet when the comments became derided as his “hug a hoodie” speech, Cameron retreated and argued that the speech was “more misrepresented than anything I’ve ever said. In fact it was three words I never said. So let me try again. Aggressive hoodies who threaten the rest of us must be punished. They need to know the difference between right and wrong, and it’s our job to tell them.” Richard Cohen likewise retreats to a simplistic notion of moral order and his stereotypical picture of a Black criminal epidemic when he derides hoodies’ newfound symbolic power, arguing that “I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman” [link in original text].
Such transparent connections between race and hoodies may unnerve us because they reveal the popular stereotypes that have assumed their own reality. Cohen explained to Politico that he had observed that hoodies are “what’s worn by a whole lot of thugs,” a conclusion he reaches based on “the newspapers, online or on television: you see a lot of guys in the mugshots wearing hoodies.” It is not enough simply to defy Cohen’s untroubled mass media impression that hooded African-American men are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime, a simplistic suggestion that has been refuted by observers including Elspeth Reeve, Jamelle Bouie, Marc Mauer, Khalil Muhammad, and Zack Beauchamp. In 1940, Hans von Hentig pondered the construction of Black criminality and confronted a variety of popular prejudices and distorted statistics that remain familiar today. Hentig was circumspect about perceptions of criminality by “agencies which we would like to believe unbiased and evenhanded” and boldly argued that the “most pernicious environmental force, setting aside the infinite other handicaps, is the attitude of the white majority toward the colored minority.”
Nevertheless, Cohen clearly believes in rampant Black criminality. Lincoln Quillian and Devah Pager’s 2001 study of racial caricatures and perceptions of crime conclude that Cohen is not alone, observing that “the percentage of a neighborhood’s black population, particularly the percentage [of] young black men, is significantly associated with perceptions of the severity of the neighborhood’s crime problem.” Quillian and Pager argue that “our results suggest that whites (and Latinos) systematically overestimate the extent to which percentage black and neighborhood crime rates are associated; this association persists even when official crime rates are controlled.”
Cohen’s warning about a Black criminal epidemic captured in hoodies’ symbolism is perhaps a fear of a caricature, but investment in that caricature has concrete social and material effects. George Zimmerman and Cohen alike likely are among the Americans who have an apprehension of the Black criminal “epidemic” they perceive is surrounding them. Zimmerman’s anxieties may be reflected in the 46 phone calls he made to police leading up to the Martin shooting, including the February 26, 2012 call in which the police recorded his report of a Black male “late teens lsw [last seen wearing] dark gray hoodie jeans or sweatpants walking around area.”
In the midst of the Cold War, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man sought a visibility that would acknowledge African America’s centrality in American society. In 1995 Ellison underscored the interconnections across color lines when he argued that “the values of my own people are neither `white’ not ‘black,’ they are American. … And indeed, today the most dramatic fight for American ideals is being sparked by black Americans. Significantly, we are the only black peoples who are not fighting for separation from the `whites,’ but for a fuller participation in the society which we share with `whites.’” Yet the Black visibility confronting us in contemporary popular culture revolves around exaggerated Black performances that Kobena Mercer and Herman Gray refer to as “hyper-Blackness.” Mercer argues that the likes of gangsta rap, club culture, and urban fashion have secured a hyperbolic Black visibility of “performed otherness” across and along color lines that continues to deny African-American selfhood.
Like much of the American social and material landscape, hoodies are perhaps a testament to the profound interconnections across class and color lines that reveal the interdependence that Ralph Ellison celebrated. As symbols of hip hop and African diasporan roots in a broader American life shared by Rocky Balboa and many contemporary suburbanites, hoodies long passed mostly unnoticed, but the hoodie now has become an apprehensible racialized symbol in its exaggerated representation of deep-seated Black criminal caricatures. Reducing it to a stereotype stand-in for Blackness ideologically resolves criminality and delivers an imaginary explanation for the anxious malice that shapes some people’s vision of difference. Yet it risks keeping Ellison’s invisible man unseen and preserving a gaze that can only see difference as a threat or a depth-less commodity.
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Burger King sign image from Nina J.G.
Hoodie protest image from Pamela Drew
London store sign image from Claire L. Evans