If Trayvon Martin Had Worn A Nice Suit, He’d Be Alive Today (Or At Least Be Shot By Someone Less Important)

So a kid’s been shot for the crime of carrying Skittles.  And of course, the media is raising the important question: did Trayvon Martin bring his death upon himself by wearing a thuggish, threatening hoodie?

Blame is, of course, important to assign.  If a woman’s been raped, the most critical piece of evidence we can gather is what clothing she was wearing, so that we can know whether she was asking for an assault.  So it’s kind of nice to see the symmetry here, as Trayvon’s dress code is questioned to see if he deserved to be gunned down for the crime of walking through the wrong neighborhood.

Remember: it’s all about the impression you present.  I mean after all, if I was walking down a dark alleyway dressed in a thousand-dollar suit, I’d just be asking to be mugged, wouldn’t I?

…except that never actually, you know, seems to happen.  I mean, Wall Street bankers get mugged on occasion, often in nice suits, and there’s never a big media question over whether they deserved to be knifed for wearing very fine clothing.  Occasionally, they might be questioned for their intellect for being in Those Neighborhoods, but nobody actually tells people with fine suits that they should have known better than to go out in that garb.

In fact, if a nice rich-looking person does get assaulted, there’s often a hue and cry about how unsafe the streets have gotten that they can’t wander around at will.  Their clothing choices are never in question. It’s other people who are at fault.

Make no mistake: any time you see someone being chastised for wearing the wrong clothing, they’ve slummed out.  Wearing a hoodie?  God, you look like a poor kid.  Wearing skimpy clothing?  You look like a slut.  There you are, a perfectly nice person, and you went out of your way to make yourself appear like someone who doesn’t deserve to have the protections that “real” society should have!  No wonder someone shot or raped you!  You purposely and knowingly discarded your protective identity!

How foolish you were.

The not-so-subliminal signal, of course, is that if you act like a criminal and/or slut, you have only yourself to blame if you get treated like one.  Even if the outfit you wear – say, a hoodie – is something that millions of quote-unquote lower-class people wear, only of which a few mug people.  But since we all know that the lower-class are mainly criminals (or at least we mainly interact with them as though they were criminals), the hoodie becomes the outfit of the criminal.

It’s really, really dickish and churlish to have the #OWS people harassing people in fine suits on the assumption they might be part of the bankers who almost destroyed America’s financial system!  That’s okay to get upset about.  But if a kid gets shot and killed because his low-class outfit threatened someone, well, maybe he should have known better.

The larger message is, of course, is that the lower class doesn’t really deserve to be protected.  If something bad happens to them, we should first look for the reasons why they had it coming.  They were in a bad neighborhood, they were probably not working very hard, they were almost certainly in some way responsible for their predicament.  ‘Cause you know, when a rich white kid vanishes on vacation and it hits the headlines everywhere, the first thing we do is start analyzing their history of teenaged drinking and sexuality in an attempt to unearth all the reasons why they might have stupidly caused their own kidnapping and/or murder…

…wait, we don’t?  We agonize unquestioningly about how such a lovely young thing could have been stolen from us?

How shocking.

The message isn’t subtle, but it’s there.  The whole Trayvon pushback is an attempt to get people to go, “Well, if he wore a nicer outfit, he probably wouldn’t have been killed!”  Which probably has an ounce of truth in it…. but it’s kind of like telling people that if they don’t go outside then they won’t choke on the cancerous gases emanating from factory smokestacks next door.  While wearing a hoodie might have saved one life, concentrating on the hoodie ignores the toxic class politics in play here.

The problem is that there’s this constant, subliminal signal that the wrong sort of people aren’t deserving of everyday protections.  If they get killed, it’s their fault.  We don’t really need to get involved.

That’s the core problem.  That’s what got brought to cold light when Trayvon got shot.

That’s what we actually need to fix.

1 Comment

  1. Lyn Belzer-Tonnessen
    Mar 26, 2012

    Yup. This right here. (And a particularly nice piece of writing to boot.)

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