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Today, most people would probably view James Dean as an icon of Thug Lite, rather than Thug Life.  The engineer boots, the jeans, the tee-shirt, the black leather jacket, the precision-trimmed pompadour, it’s not just that it all looks retro—American style is additive; nothing ever really goes away—it looks Straight Edge, really.  Subtract the tattoos, and plenty of the hardcore punks who kept the rock but ditched the sex and drugs, look like they’ve “Gone Dean.”

In Rebel Without a Cause, we got Dean in red cloth instead of black leather: red jacket, white shirt, blue jeans.  He’s the flag!  America gone bad, or at least post-war conflicted.  Youthful disaffection—and how can you be properly young if you’re not properly disaffected?—has always dressed itself up in costumes of threat.

Young women are required to present themselves in overly sexualized ways:  I’m young; I can take your man.  And then they’re chastised for doing what was asked of them—think of Jessica Rabbit’s poignant comic plea: I’m not bad. . . I’m just drawn that way.

Young men are required to present themselves as icons of danger:  I’m young; I can take your woman.  And then they’re told they’ve brought on whatever violence comes their way, random and casual or sanctioned and official: front like a thug, die like a thug.

And so to Trayvon Martin. .  .  starting, of course, with obligatory disclaimers and stipulations:

1. Zimmerman is innocent until proven guilty; we don’t know (sadly, we may never know) exactly what happened.

2.  The information we have certainly makes it appear that he was a man with a growing racialized view of threat and the ultimate confrontation took place because he treated Martin as prey—to be pursued even  after he was told not to pursue.

3.  Geraldo Rivera is a jackass—most recently—for suggesting that Martin’s hoodie “is as responsible for his death as George Zimmerman was.”

4.  Representative Bobby Rush is to be commended for his donning of a hoodie during a speech to Congress.  His mic was cut and he was removed, while quoting the bible, by the sergeant at arms—don’t remember that happening to Dick Cheney, when he told Pat Leahy, “go fuck yourself” on the floor of the Senate. . . civility seems to mean different things in different contexts.

Geraldo is wrong; (Bobby) Rush is, well…he’s half right.

How we dress, how we represent ourselves publicly, does matter. But, as with so much else about race, we can’t talk about these things openly and honestly.

In June of 2011, DeShon Marman, an African-American football player at the University of New Mexico, was taken off a USAirways flight, pre-takeoff, in San Francisco, and arrested after an altercation with airline personnel—the details of which are in dispute—regarding pulling up his pants, something he was initially asked to do by African-American airline employees.

Marman’s mother, Donna Doyle, lamented “sagging,” to a reporter a few days after the incident, saying it was something she had tried to get her son to stop doing:  “His coach has told him; my sister, my cousins. .  . We’ve all said, ‘Boy, pull your pants up.’”

A month later, however, after charges against Marman were dropped, his mother was talking about the inevitable filing of a lawsuit against the airline:  “Well there’s a lot of racism in there, between the humiliation and the harassment that they brought upon my son,” she said in an interview.

Was the Marman incident a matter of inappropriate behavior on the part of a passenger?  Was it a matter of racial profiling on the part of the airline?  It’s hard to decide.  Marman’s mother can’t really seem to decide.  One suspects, however, that—had they been traveling together—she would have cuffed his ear and tightened his belt, curbside, before they entered the airport.

Would Trayvon Martin be alive if he had been wearing a prep school uniform?  Quite possibly.

Is that right?  No.  Walking-While-Hoodied should no more be a capital offense than Walking-While-Black.

But it is dishonest for us to pretend that presentation doesn’t matter.

What Marman’s mother said—privately, fiercely, and often—to her son was: Don’t dress like that!  What she says now publically is Don’t judge my son by how he’s dressed!  What plenty of well-intentioned progressive white people say publicly now is, Don’t judge African-American kids by how they dress, an affirming and supportive message, undercut by what they say—privately, fiercely, and often—to their own kids which is: Don’t dress like that!

Across the board, I’d like to see fewer of America’s children dressed like thugs—whether that means the jailhouse fashion of sagging pants or the hoodie and sunglasses, Unabomber-chic, look.  I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.  What young people do—what they have always done; go back to James Dean—is to play with the iconography of threat: sexuality as threat, violence as threat.

Issues of race and class are often overlays on the basic bone structure of “age threat.”  Give me a choice at midnight, between a subway car whose sole occupant is an eighty-year-old woman and another with an eighteen-year-old man and I’m going to go sit with the eighty-year-old woman.  Young people are scary; it’s what they often want to be and I take the iconography of threat seriously.

But if young people are compelled by culture and by biology to revolt, or at least transgress, older people have an obligation not just to attempt to temper that behavior—futile as those attempts will often be—but also to temper our own overreactions, to distinguish between the pose and the reality, between Thug Lite, the fashion, and Thug Life, the reality.

However much the young try to blur that line, we’re still supposed to act like the adults.

I have occasionally taken issue with—or had issues with—the way my teenage daughter wanted to dress for school; that doesn’t mean that I think any clothing ever authorizes a young girl to be harassed or attacked.  In the same vein, it’s not unreasonable, regarding teenage boys, of whatever race, to voice some caution about the enthusiasm with which they take up, or normalize, thug garb or fashion; that doesn’t mean clothing ever legitimizes an attack on an adolescent—or on anyone else, for that matter.

Young men of color carry a special, and unfair, burden, complicated by a contradiction of youth, in which adolescent boys simultaneously say both “see me as a threat,” and “why am I being singled out as a threat?”  The hoodie isn’t the problem.  But it’s not the right badge of innocence either.

In 1988, a federal law came into force, requiring that all toy guns have a brightly colored tip at the end of the barrel—usually red or dayglo orange.  One reason for this was the use of fake guns in real crimes.  But given that adult criminals have no compunction about removing the tip, the more obvious target of the law was children, children who were shot—not often but with some regularity—by police officers, who allegedly mistook toy guns for real weapons.

Fifteen years earlier, in the spring of 1973, a ten-year-old African-American boy named Clifford Glover was shot and killed, in Queens, by an undercover police officer.  I remember this vividly, both because I was the same age and because of the riots that followed.

The officer said the child had brandished what turned out to be a toy gun.  Whether that’s what happened or not is an open question.  A toy gun and a starter pistol were supposedly found in the area—one on the street, one in a storm drain—but there was open discussion about how credible this evidence was: everyone knew—or believed—that the police were wont to use a “throw down” to support their contention that what they had been involved in was “a good shoot.”

Again, Geraldo is wrong: it makes no sense to exonerate the shooter—or the egregiously flawed Stand Your Ground Law—and blame the clothing.  But it also makes no sense to act as if the pretense of threat—toy gun or Thug Lite fashion statement—doesn’t confuse the landscape, sometimes dangerously so: there’s no red tip, on whatever the street fashion of the day, to distinguish the real gang bangers from the wannabe-seen-as.

We should be saying, across the board, that our kids, regardless of race, would do better not to emulate thugs; but it’s not realistic to think they’ll heed this fashion advice anytime soon.  What the adults need to hear and heed in that sentence is “OUR,” we have to start being more consistent, open and honest, about what we say to—and about—America’s children.

And we would do well to start by being more consistent, open, and honest about what we say to each other:  If I wouldn’t want my child to dress in a certain way, it’s not racism for me to have and to voice the same safety concerns for your child; and if I’m condemning problematic behavior in my community in private, it’s not just a matter of airing dirty laundry to do the same thing in public.

In both cases, we should have no higher priority than protecting America’s children.

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Donald N.S. Unger DONALD N. S. UNGER teaches in the Program in Writing & Humanistic Studies at MIT. His book, Men Can: The Changing Image & Reality of Fatherhood in America, was published by Temple University Press in 2010. www.men-can.com

4 Responses to “Trayvon Martin, Youth, and The Pose of Threat”

  1. Steve says:

    Kids aren’t dressing up as ‘thugs’, thugs are just dressing the same as their urban peers. This article is classist.

  2. Don Unger says:

    I would respectfully disagree.

    I didn’t give “Gangsta Rap” its name; the participants did that.

    And prisoners didn’t adopt “sagging” because that was street fashion; it was the other way around (although, generally, ill-fitting clothing is less a jailhouse choice than an enforced reality).

    Kids generally “want to look tough.” To the degree that this is a class issue, I would suggest that the problem is that more affluent kids can self-consciously dress up in street fashion for a time, then change costumes when they want to move on. Working class and poor kids end up having their options limited by a permanent costume that is normalized by street culture.

    A working class African-American wearing a jacket and tie unquestionably faces a higher barrier to getting a job than does his white, middle class counterpart. The same man in street clothes is less likely to get through the door for an interview. Yes, there is an aspect of class discrimination there. But–right or wrong–I don’t think many people are looking for a physician or an attorney in sagging pants and a hoodie.

  3. Markham Lee says:

    Hi Donald -

    I think your heart is in the right place with this, but I think you’re a tad disconnected from several realities.

    I know from direct personal experience that people who suspect Black men of being criminals just for walking down the street, being in the wrong neighborhood, etc? Do so regardless of the clothes you’re wearing.

    I live in a rather affluent neighborhood and one of my neighbors challenged my actions when I was walking in my garbage cans…..

    …in a $1,000 suit.

    As if I woke up in the proverbial hood and my friends and it would be fun to put on expensive clothes and bring in random garbage cans.

    Meanwhile I’ve gone to the local luxury car dealership on a regular basis wearing a hoodie and no one blinks or challenges me.

    Another item: so called “thug clothes” are just the clothes people wear in various urban environments. When a so called “Gangster Rapper” comes out, he doesn’t invent a style he just wears the style from the environment he comes from. If you go to a Urban neighborhood you won’t be able to tell the criminals from the honor students by their clothes.

    Loose fitting clothing amongst Blacks is a bit more complex than “I hear prisoners wear loose clothes, let’s do the same so we can look tough”.

    If anything it’s more a rejection of the fact that white men tend to wear tight jeans.

    In fact even now tight jeans, skinny jeans, etc, is often viewed as a sign that the man wearing them might be gay.

    Seriously.

    So you’re just plain wrong on that item, and while you made a logical deduction, being not part of a community resulted in you not having all the facts.

    Also – hoodies are pretty standard clothes these days. Trayvon was wearing hoodies and Jeans, we don’t even have information that says he had sagging pants. Hoodies and Jeans are pretty standard clothes, who doesn’t wear hoodies and Jeans?

    It’s a serious question actually.

    I live in Seattle and all the young rich white kids in my neighborhood are in hoodies in jeans, ditto for the giant tech firm I work in.

    But what do I know?

    I’m just a young Black guy who has always lived in predominantly white neighborhoods, and have noticed that it’s always the person’s attitude that causes someone to target me NOT my clothes. My neighbor saw me in an expensive suit and thought I was up to no good, the car salesmen just saw another local high income techie and tried to sell me a car.

    -M

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