Geraldo Rivera has a point

Right now you’re probably thinking “April Fool’s is over, dude”. I mean this in earnest: Geraldo Rivera was not completely wrong when he said that wearing a hooded sweatshirt contributed to Trayvon Martin’s murder. His thesis, that Trayvon therefore shares in some of the blame for choosing to wear a hoodie, is completely fucking wrong, but you really can’t expect someone who works for Fox News to make more than one cogent and/or accurate point in a single sitting.

I did my graduate degree at one of Canada’s most well-regarded institutions – whether or not it deserves its reputation is very much an open question, but we’ll let others delve into that. I mention it only to say that while I was there, I bought a zippered hoodie (the most versatile garment in the world, especially in spring/fall when dressing in layers is a life-saver) with the school logo emblazoned in large font on the front. The other day, I needed to run to the grocery store around the corner, so I threw on my hoodie. On my way out of the store, I noticed that it had begun to drizzle so I flipped up my hood to keep the rain off of my face.

As I bounded up the stairs to the front of my building, I caught my reflection in the glass doors and was caught momentarily off guard – I looked pretty intimidating. Despite the large block letters of the school on the front, and… y’know… the fact that it was my own reflection, even I was startled for a moment. I can certainly understand how someone might mistake my hands-in-pockets, hood-up stance as being reflective of some kind of ill intent, but I was just trying to stay dry. So was Trayvon. In fact, our missions were more or less the same. We are only separated by a few years, about 120 lbs, and a national border (and he’s quite a bit darker than I am, which is far from meaningless).

So with regard to the statement that hooded sweatshirts, especially when worn by black men, might be easily misrecognized as threatening, I have no difficulty admitting that this may in fact be the case. But this same story also serves to illustrate the ridiculousness of the main point that Mr. Rivera was trying to make. Is it reasonable for someone to make that assumption? If a neighbour had spotted me and concluded that I was up to no good, would it be my fault, even partly, for hir wild assumption? Must I forever abjure the comforts that my Queen’s hoodie provides me when I need to take a quick jaunt to Safeway for my dinner?

No. That’s a ridiculous and untenable imperative to expect, and to state that I’m to blame if some nutcase takes a shot at me because I look ‘suspicious’ is absurd. The lesson here is not that black/Latin@ kids must adhere to whatever dress code makes whitey most comfortable. Nor is the lesson that black/Latin@ parents must intervene to keep their kids from dressing “like gangsters”, any more than it is the fault of a parent if hir 15 year-old daughter is raped because she left the house dressed “like a slut”. This kind of victim blaming might be a comfortable way of distancing yourself from the thought that it might be you who has the problem, or that those who are assaulted somehow did something to ‘deserve’ it, but it focuses attention on entirely the wrong subject.

This debate, incidentally, is nothing new. I am reminded of a speech by Bill Cosby – notoriously dubbed the ‘Pound Cake speech’, in which Cosby articulated one of the mainstays of black conservative thought: that blacks must hold themselves (ourselves) to higher standards if they (we) are to advance. We must not wait for the rest of the world to sort itself out and start treating us as equals – it is up to us to force the world to see us as we see ourselves. Of course, even Bill is not the first to articulate this point (Ta-Nehisi Coates has a typically phenomenal summary of the topic – definitely worth a read if any of this is unfamiliar territory to you), and it should be noted that there are many elements of black conservatism – self-sufficiency, economic empowerment, prioritizing co-operation, avoiding materialist obsession – that I agree with wholeheartedly.

All of this being said, none of what Bill Cosby or Geraldo Rivera or Thomas Sowell have to say on the topic of fashion is relevant to the Trayvon Martin case. The argument entirely misses the point that it is not the garment that makes black men appear threatening. Until black folks find a way to change skin colours while in public (and heaven help us if someone ever does), the conversation needs to be on why we see black men as threats, regardless of their activity. Why it is that I start at my own reflection when my hood is up. Why it is that it is black and Latin@ kids that must forgo hoodies (while kids of other races presumably can wear whatever they like). Why it is that there was a rush to find some reason why it was Trayvon Martin’s fault he got shot – whether it was his grades, or maybe his Twitter activity, or maybe the fact that he had been suspended from school – surely he must have done something that made getting hunted down and shot his fault, and not George Zimmerman’s.

Geraldo Rivera, having moved from daytime talk show host to comical field reporter to arbiter of appropriate dress for young people, doesn’t understand the first thing he’s talking about. His feeble not-pology demonstrates pretty unequivocally that Mr. Rivera has learned nothing (except that non-gangsters wear hoodies too) from the backlash to his comments, and something tells me that the audience that thinks that he has something valuable to contribute to this conversation aren’t interested in learning anything either.

What we should take away from the ludicrous fixation on Trayvon Martin’s fashion choice is that our inability to discuss and parse race leads us to re-hash old and stupid arguments about whether it is reasonable to blame the victim for looking so eminently shootable. Perhaps we can take some solace in the fact that most people outside the conservative thought-sphere immediately recognized how intellectually bankrupt Geraldo’s comments were, but the one thing that he got right were pretty quickly drowned out in the howling fury over the many things he got wrong. Black men in hoodies are seen as more threatening – and that’s a fucking shame.

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  1. audiolight says

    Can I be honest? My inner lizard brain feels fear from white guys in hoodies too (usually young guys that “look like they might belong to a gang”). I’m not suggesting at all that the Trayvon Martin shooting wasn’t about race and inner prejudices against “black/latin@s, (because it totally was and had nothing to do with him wearing a hoodie, or Zimmerman reacting in “self-defense”, or any other side-issue that has been brought up with the story – Zimmerman really gunned the poor kid down for being the “wrong race”).

    We should probably admit though that our inner prejudices can run different ways, for different reasons – it largely depends on which salient parts of the situation we’re using to make a quick threat-level decision from our environment.

  2. slc1 says

    Gerald Rivers’ career in TV was about to be flushed down the toilet in 1994 when he got a stroke of luck, namely the OJ Simpson case and the subsequent “trial of the century”. Because of his legal background, he was hired by MSNBC to host a talk show in the evenings in which he and his guests would dissect the events in the courtroom that day. Of course, most of his guests, with the exception of attorney Gerry Spence who was actually in the courtroom, weren’t watching the trial but were opining, based on sound bites. This stroke of luck, bad for Simpson, good for Rivers, resurrected his rapidly fading career.

    One can only wonder what Rivers’ future would have been if Simpson had caught a 10:00 PM flight to Chicago, instead of a 11:45 PM flight.

  3. audiolight says

    Missing from my thoughts is the consideration:

    Black men in hoodies are seen as more threatening – and that’s a fucking shame.

    … which is really the bottom-line. Sorry Ian.

  4. d cwilson says

    Why it is that there was a rush to find some reason why it was Trayvon Martin’s fault he got shot – whether it was his grades, or maybe his Twitter activity, or maybe the fact that he had been suspended from school – surely he must have done something that made getting hunted down and shot his fault, and not George Zimmerman’s.

    Because the official policy at Fox is that racism is never, ever, ever a factor in any interaction between a white person and a black person, unless, of course, the black person was at fault. Then it was all about racism.

    99% of the time, I think Bill Maher is a giant douche, but in this point, he is right: Denying racism is the new racism. Everyone at Fox got their instruction to find something other race to explain Martin’s death.

    The irony here is that Geraldo has gone from the guy who got beat up by racists to just another of Fox’s many apologists for racism.

  5. Eris says

    Absolutely. It really frustrates me that so many people cannot separate, “I find him to be threatening” from “He is doing something threatening.” They are not at all the same.

  6. says

    A person in a hoodie (OK, I admit, there are freaking few black people here anyway, this being Germany, which means that all our criminals are white*, too) makes me think “hey, cool, I like hoodies, too!”.
    You know what would make me really afraid?
    Somebody with a gun.

    *Ahhh, but not too white: If they have a tan they’re probably Turkish criminals. If not, they’re the Russenmaffia. Unless they’re just random German-German kids who beat people dead on railway platforms…

  7. says

    This isn’t a Fox News-manufactured problem though. This is a process that our brains do, regardless of prompting. The level to which we give those impulses free reign is a measure of how race-skeptic we are.

  8. karmakin says

    I live in a mostly white area, and to be honest, the fear of hoodies is projected onto white kids as well, at least around here. Which makes little to no sense as it’s standard youth clothing…

    Oh wait.

  9. d cwilson says

    I agree that Fox didn’t manufacture this problem, but it’s clear that early on, Fox adopted the narrative that Martin was at fault, facts be damned. They took advantage of the common perception that a youth in a hoodie looks threatening. But if Trayvon Martin had been wearing swim trunks and flipflops, Fox would have just found some other excuse to put the blame on him.

  10. karmakin says

    “The just-world hypothesis (or just-world fallacy) is a cognitive bias referring to the common assumption that situations and situational outcomes are caused or guided by some universal force of justice, order, stability, or desert.”

    I honestly think this has a lot to do with it. It’s also why I consider myself an anti-theist as well as an atheist. (My big beef with theism is how it strengthens and reinforces this particular fallacy)

  11. Dianne says

    You know what would make me really afraid?
    Somebody with a gun.

    Well, if you’re going to go all sane and sensible on us like that…Guns scare me too. Even though I grew up in Texas. Maybe especially because I grew up in Texas. The statistics are pretty clear: gun ownership is associated with a higher risk of death from murder, suicide, or accident than non-gun ownership. Not to mention the risk of your toddler finding the gun…

    Sorry, this is off topic, isn’t it?

  12. Dianne says

    If a young Jewish man walking down the streets of Berlin in the mid-1930s wearing a yarmulke was murdered, it is likely that his clothing contributed to his being killed. Much as it is likely that Martin’s clothing contributed to his being targeted by a murderer.

    In neither case would it be the fault of the victim and in neither case is changing one’s clothing style likely to lead to any significant increase in safety. Only changing society’s assumptions and values would lead to increased safety for the young man in question in either case.

  13. says

    I’m immediately uncomfortable with comparisons between anti-black racism and anti-Semitic racism… there are very different forces at play with those two types of bigotry (although there is undoubtedly some overlap). Your point is still sound, I just felt it necessary to make the point that there is a real and important difference.

  14. Randomfactor says

    I’m tempted to draw a comparison with the often-ill-reported study that says “people find atheists and rapists equally bad.”

    What the survey DOES say (IIRC) is that thinking of atheists, or rapists, or quite possibly young black men in hoodies, causes some people to make mistakes in logic that they are otherwise less likely to make.

  15. John Horstman says

    99% of the time, I think Bill Maher is a giant douche, but in this point, he is right: Denying racism is the new racism.

    Ironic, given that the same can be said of sexism, and in Maher’s case specifically. But yes, I agree completely – denial that a problem exists serves to reinforce the problem. This is why consciousness-raising is a major aim of any social justice movement that’s just starting out – one can’t fight injustice if one can’t identify it.

  16. Ned Champlain says

    Please cease being ridiculous. One can be cautious, as most of you have shown. The fact is none of you drew a gun and shot anything, whether a reflection or a passerby on the street. Trayvon was stalked confronted and murdered, end of sentence. He did nothing suspicious, broke no laws.

  17. HP says

    Somehow, I missed out on the whole “hoodies = crime” socialization thing. I’m a Baby Buster (b. 1963 — America’s smallest demographic), and for me, a “hooded sweatshirt” (that’s what we called them back then) is what you wear over your flannel shirt and under your jean jacket.

    I came to a certain imperfect understanding of race, politics, and privilege before hooded sweatshirts became fashionable again. I’m a white guy who lives in a majority-black, urban neighborhood. And I am absolutely baffled by the whole hoodie thing.

    How is a sweatshirt a signifier of anything other than the weather? When did this happen? Was I not paying attention?

    [I feel obliged to add, of course, that all of you kids are on my lawn.]

  18. Who Knows? says

    a “hooded sweatshirt” (that’s what we called them back then) is what you wear over your flannel shirt and under your jean jacket.

    When I was a teenager, that was our winter coat.

  19. Dalillama says

    I dunno if it’s entirely a generational thing. In was born in ’81, but growing up in the Pacific NW, the sight of someone wearing a hoodie means that it probably isn’t August, and nothing more. In Eugene (where I grew up) and Portland (Where I now live), for most of the year people wearing hoodies outnumber the people who aren’t, and if I thought of that as suspicious I wouldn’t be able to walk out my front door without having a panic attack.

  20. BigRed says

    I am a European white male, I am tall and far from skinny.

    I also like to shave my head.

    Which means that people change the side of the street they’re walking on – not only when I am wearing a leather jacket or a hoody but also when my knee is torn up so bad that I can see my knee cap and I am pushing my bicycle – blood spattered and all. Because a white European male with a shaved head has a reputation of probably being violent…because he might be a neonazi skinhead. I’ve also had groups of Turkish stepping up to me and being very aggressive because they assumed I was right-wing and the only reason I didn’t get stomped was because I was very, very, VERY submissive in my reply (and once police stepped in).

    Now, I am not comparing my situation to being black. I am white and male (and European) and I am very aware that I am supremely privileged.

    And I have been shocked and disgusted by what happened to Trayvor Martin and I am still speechless that Zimmerman didn’t get arrested.

    What I wanna aim at, however, is that those !dangerous! signs go off for a lot of people and the main, decisive difference between the US and Europe is and will be that we don’t carry guns. You can work towards reducing racism all you want but as long as a paranoid racist asshole can pull a trigger and end a life, you have a problem. In Europe in most cases they would have to be in a group, which a warning sign, or go toe to toe with a melee weapon which improves the potential victim’s chances.

    So sorry if I am preaching but unless you get US gun laws under control, this remains a fucked-up situation, no matter how non-racist people will be.

  21. smrnda says

    to HP

    I’m also white and grew up in Chicago in an area that was mostly Black and I never thought of hoodies as being a threatening article of clothing, but unlike most Americans if I notice a neighborhood is mostly Black I don’t assume it’s a bad neighborhood, so perhaps my experiences – like yours – aren’t typical.

    I guess I can relate more to issues of how women dress so as to avoid being sexually harassed in public, but I’ve known women who wore sweatpants and baggy shirts who got the same treatment, so I think that the whole idea that ‘if you don’t dress to get attention guys won’t harass you’ is really all in our heads, the way I would imagine a young Black male thinking that he can dress differently and avoid racist white people or police harassment. Plenty of Black males I have known have told me that whether they’re wearing hoodies or a suit, you never know who is going to give you the treatment…

  22. says

    I’m not sure if Ned’s comment is spam or just non-fluent English. I erred on the side of caution and let it through the filter.

  23. crayzz says


    “…he’s quite a bit darker than I am, which is far from meaningless.”

    That bit made me think of this:

    It’s a brief summary of how colourism affect’s the hiring of actresses and actors, with a list of examples in the media that either demonstrate colourism or deal with it as a subject.

  24. xaw says

    Strange, somehow this whole, “black men in hoodies seem threatening” idea completely missed me, a white woman. Now I’m thinking back to when I was with my ex. Did he have his hoody up only when it was cold or rainy? I never really thought about it, I rarely cared about his fashion choices. Why would a black man with a hoody seem more threatening than one without? I don’t get it.

    I just keep remembering us, walking with our cold hands in his pocket, and him with his hoody up, smiling at me…and the idea of someone shooting a teenager for looking probably something like my ex does is upsetting.

    Before our relationship failed, having kids together was something we talked about, and was a very real possibility for me. So it seems, according to some people, if I have kids with some white guy, I don’t have to give a damn what they wear. But if I have (half) black sons, I should, what, make them wear business casual everywhere? Forbid them from wearing things that white kids wear, because someone might think they (but not the white kids) are threatening and suspicious? Should Trayvon’s parents be rending their clothes, wailing, “If only we hadn’t let him wear hoodies!” Ridiculous.

    I’m sure parenting is hard enough as it is. But parenting non-white children must be harder. Fuck those who make that the case.

  25. F says

    That’s because they don’t logically order their thoughts and feelings. If people did bother to construct sentences out of their thoughts as per your example, it would probably help people make such distinctions and promote better awareness of their internal workings as well as better perception of other people and their environment.

  26. Dianne says

    . So it seems, according to some people, if I have kids with some white guy, I don’t have to give a damn what they wear.

    Well, you don’t have to care what your sons wear. If your daughters go out in anything more revealing than a burka and something happens, it’s their fault.

  27. Weatherwax says

    if you’re into crime novels, valerie wilson wesley provides interesting insights into colourism as well as parenting a non-white teenager (or at least i as a white person always thought so). apart from them being really good books in and of themselves.

  28. irieagogo says

    As a woman, I have learned to be somewhat wary of men in general. Schroedinger’s (sp?) rapist/mugger is always a possibility, as previously discussed here. (Twice recently I’ve been completely heart-poundingly startled by people running past me on the sidewalk. So much so I’ve been sort of glad I don’t have the lightning-fast impulses to be both startled and to reactively throat punch these people who pass within centimeters without so much as a yoo-hoo! But this is a digression.)

    More True Anecdotes: A (homeless?) white guy was lurking on my dark stoop one late night when I came home, and I hung back, asking what he was up to without going up the stairs and coming closer to him. I waited till he came down and headed away down the sidewalk before I went up to my door. Maybe I was a little more hyper-alert because, months before that, oddly enough, I was robbed at gunpoint by a black man larger than myself (5’10”) whose face was obscured by his black hoodie. I blame my own false sense of security, which led me to feel comfortable strolling down a dark road, and to not pay attention to what was going on around me. This thing happened that was really scary, and yet it had the best possible outcome: minimal loss and no bodily insult or injury. In retrospect, I do not blame the people or place where this happened, no hard feelings, really. In my mind I have successfully compartmentalized this experience as an isolated incident. After the robbery, I told myself I’d never walk that road at that hour again, but I have broken my word and done what I’ve said I wouldn’t do, except that I have been more aware of my surroundings and the actions of others when I do so. Live and learn, eh?

    Looking back between then and now, I don’t think I feel I’ve become more wary of men of color vs. white men, or men in hoodies vs. other types of shirts and hats. Based on these most recent weird experiences, I just feel a tad more aware of situations and circumstances, and of all men, overall.

    People have a right to be reserved, mentally alert, or prepared for altercations based on their life experiences. This is just the way humans operate. There is, or should be, however, a line between preparedness and preemptively acting on one’s own biases and fears. I think this “stand your ground” type of law means only the one with the weapon is allowed/left to stand. To paraphrase something I read one of Trayvon’s parents asked, where was HIS right to stand HIS ground against harassment and indeed, murder?

  29. Dianne says

    To paraphrase something I read one of Trayvon’s parents asked, where was HIS right to stand HIS ground against harassment and indeed, murder?

    It’s a good question. Almost separate from the whole issue of race, the law favors those who have a gun over those who are unarmed. Suppose Martin had stood his ground against Zimmerman’s harassment. Zimmerman then drew a gun and threatened Martin with it. Unfortunately, for Zimmerman, in this alternate reality, Martin was an expert in five forms of martial arts and was able to disarm him. Even more unfortunately, Zimmerman hit Martin and went for the gun. Martin had no choice (if he wanted to stand his ground) but to keep attacking Zimmerman and ultimately killed him. Would he have gotten off on the “stand your ground” law? Suppose he were white. Would he then have gotten off? I think that in both cases, the answer is “no”. I suspect that the “stand your ground” law would only be invoked for a shooter. But I don’t actually know. Anyone out there able to give an educated opinion on this?

  30. says

    “Until black folks find a way to change skin colours while in public (and heaven help us if someone ever does)…”

    You can bleach yourself lighter. It’s a thing.

    Also, don’t google “skin bleaching” at work. Some people only and specifically treat ‘intimate’ areas.

  31. tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach says

    I am a European white male, I am tall and far from skinny.

    Me too

    I also like to shave my head.

    Not me – what I do that triggers the whole “shriek!! RapeMurderRobberyHelp” attitude is carry a crash helmet. Just that. A simple bit of traffic safety gear transforms me from safe-nice old Mr McWhitenice to evil despoiler of virgins-etc-etc. Of course, I can just not carry said helmet and get all the privileges of whiteness and middle-classness which makes it a different category of problem to having dark skin. BUT. It does serve as a terrifying illustration of how utterly fucked up human nature is when anything different shows up. FFS I’ve seen people freak out because I pick up a pen with my left hand!

    I try not to act racist. I work at not being sexist. I know I don’t suceed all the time. It’s the best I can do, so far as I can tell.

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