I am suspicious. I know that. When police cars make U-turns as they pass me I know they are following my vehicle long enough to run my license plates. It happens a lot. The one time a police officer came at me with anger, when I was a teenager, I could hear him speak into his radio, “Heavy set, Hispanic, male, dark hair. I may need some help with this one.” As the police officer came towards me it was not fear I saw in his eyes, it was preparation.
As a forty-year old professor who studies Latino politics, this angers me. As a father of a 2-year old boy, it makes me afraid. Our judicial system is set up with maximum empathy built into it for the majority. Law enforcement operates under an assumption of suspicion of minorities and it matters little if the officers themselves are minority.
We have managed to institutionalize mechanisms that force understanding into the system through hard fought laws that mandates certain types of behavior, for instance, in our school system via desegregation and preferential treatment in the admissions process in our universities.
The federal government has also imposed policies that seek to protect minorities, such as hate crimes, but they are under constant attack because they are viewed as special privileges. The Voting Rights Act, which creates federal authority over a States’ ability to conduct their electoral procedures as they wish, is the result of a long pattern of aggression by States against the rights of minorities to participate in the basic functions of democracy.
And so when I see the reaction over the Trayvon Martin killing, I too feel the outrage. Coming from Los Angeles, this is a regular occurrence. I cannot give Trayvon’s death much more than I can give when I read about the hundreds of other minority teens that are gunned down in cold blood every year in my hometown. I feel guilty for admitting that, but it’s the truth.
Instead, my outrage comes from the insistence by folks who should know better, to set the scenario of Trayvon’s killing in the most forgiving light possible for George Zimmerman. Trayvon was wearing a hoodie. Pictures of him have popped up dressed as a wannabe gangbanger. Black kids are more likely to kill other black kids, say the message boards. Look there, a black kid just attacked a white kid and nobody seems to care, says a friend on Facebook.
Debbie Riddle, a Texas legislator who once slept inside the Statehouse in order to be the first to submit her own SB1070-style bill so that it would have the lowest bill number on it as a symbol of the importance of immigrant control, wrote on her Facebook wall, “Will someone please tell our kids that if you dress like a gangster you may be treated like a gangster… Our kids are way to important to cash them in for political correctness or political opportunity.” The level of insincerity exemplified here is mind-boggling.
As I’ve said before, the tragedy in Trayvon’s killing is it lays bare the rawness of our collective suspicion of black males and the indifference we have towards the plight of minorities when the majority feels threatened. Riddle’s statement reinforces this inequality. Despite her faint qualifying nod to egalitarianism by making this statement to “black or white” alike, Riddle knows she is scolding minorities alone for looking like gangsters. Don’t complain if you get killed. Stop being so suspicious.
So as a father I get why Geraldo Rivera lazily blamed the hoodie. I won’t defend what he said, but I can certainly understand the desperation. Contrary to Riddle, Rivera’s admonishment was not a reinforcement of society’s suspicions, but an indictment of them. His was a survival skill, while hers was a declaration of ownership, a warning.
Still, I have a difficult time joining my friends over this by wearing a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon. When smart folks like Melissa Harris-Perry mock those who scold minorities for wearing blue or red, or for wearing saggy pants, common dress for gang members, I cannot help but cringe. I remember well walking through East Los Angeles as a teenager, conscious of what I was wearing. It was not right, but social justice was not my immediate concern.
Professors, political analysts and others who know why Trayvon’s killing was a miscarriage of justice are right to be outraged by the way the world works. They are absolutely right to try and change that. But if it takes dressing a certain way to maximize survival in the meantime, that’s how I’ll encourage my boy to dress. It’s Debbie Riddle’s world, for now. And in Riddle’s world wearing the “right” clothes is still no guarantee that my son will ever walk this world above suspicion. She and her ilk are doing their very best to keep it that way.
Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D, NBCLatino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.