We’ve gotten used to the refrain (often repeated by shrugging and half-apologetic white people), “when I see a black man, at night, wearing a hoodie, I cross the street.” It is nearly always said as a way to acknowledge that there is a race problem in America, that there is inequality, but that the person speaking is unable to fix the problem. I can think of no other word to describe this phenomenon, this lackluster approach to facing up to racism in America, than “bullshit!”
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, where a 17 year old black man wearing a hoodie and carrying ice tea and skittles was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, the politics of race and hoodies have taken center stage in the American zeitgeist. Attempts by some on the right to paint Martin as a gangster or in some other way deserving the nighttime execution in late February, have, by and large, hinged around so called “crimes” like wearing a hoodie and being on school suspension. None of that is of any relevance to the case. What these statements represent, however, is an attempt to win sympathy from the “I cross the street” white Americans who can understand why someone might be threatened by a black man wearing a hoodie.
For a white American, who grew up in a mostly white town, my decision in 2009 to move into a mostly black neighborhood and attend an all black church (prior to my rejection of theism) in the city of Albany, NY, was seen by some as, at least, risky. Walking around, alone, late at night in a predominantly black neighborhood – while white! – is seen as dangerous behavior by many who have not done so themselves. For me it was just the walk from the bus stop to my house and I was living, like the rest of my neighbors, where I could afford to. Like everyone else in the neighborhood, if I could afford to live somewhere else, I would. And like everyone else in the neighborhood, I crossed the street if I saw a threatening situation. If I zigzagged across the road every time I saw a black man wearing a hoodie I would simply never get home.
I remember one night in particular when I, heading home late at night dressed up in a suit and tie through a bad section of town, felt uncomfortable. The bus was late, the stop was dimly lit, and there was a host of “suspicious characters” hanging around, most all of them wearing dark, dirty hoodies. This is one of the few times in my life where I felt genuinely insecure; I kept scanning my surroundings for threatening movements and held my cell phone in my fist thinking that, if nothing else, it might stiffen the blow. And then another young man approached the bus stop, also wearing a suit and tie, and also looking uncomfortable with the situation. We noticed each other and, though we never said more than brief salutations, moved closer while we waited for the bus. This is an obvious example of two people recognizing themselves to be similar and acting defensively to protect ourselves against perceived threats.
I left out race in my description above. Nearly everybody at the bus stop that night was white with the exception of the young man who was also wearing suit and tie – he was black. We recognized each other as being more similar, and therefore more likely to help if the situation got rough, not based on race, but because of our dress. As a self sufficient college student living on less than one thousand dollars a month (from which I paid rent, bills, etc) I learned that night that race is skin deep, and class is clothes deep. It’s clear that the “I cross the street” whites have never lingered long in a black neighborhood, and have not dealt with the face of poverty which exists within their own race.
That’s the thing about hoodies. They are comfortable and frightening. I wear one at night when I know I will be in a particularly troubled part of town – not because I want to be warm, but because I don’t want to look like a target. I recognize that anyone wearing a hoodie is capable of looking more frightening than they are; the raised hood casting a shadow over the wearer’s face, their bulk amplified by the baggy fabric, large pockets concealing who-knows-what. But pretending hoodies, when referenced by social pundits, are anything more than a proxy for race in our national discussion about “crossing streets” and dead black teens is insulting. White people are not facing up to racism when they admit to “crossing the street;” they are accepting it. I’m not advocating a disregard for common sense – if you feel threatened, take the proper action to remove yourself from the situation – but the conversation needs to progress from mere acceptance of racist America to challenges to it.
You see, crossing the street doesn’t solve anybody’s problem. Streets can also be crossed by assailants, like George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin. Really challenging the status quo of race relations in America means that we need to do more than address surface level issues like the perceived threat of a hoodie and the “gangster” image of baggy jeans. Too often, when a white person sees a black man at night wearing a hoodie, it’s because someone is in the “wrong” neighborhood. And that fact, not the hoodie, is the problem. Until race is no longer a proxy for class we will not see an end to racism in America. So enough bullshit; the problem is self evident and the solutions are not helped along by sycophantic white pandering. Crossing the street only adds more distance when what we need is less.