Some years ago, I recall reading angry facebook rants and general media hang-wringing about Chicago’s nightclubs. It seems that, in an attempt to protect their businesses from vandalism, theft, and, in particular, sexual harassment complaints and drug busts (word of such being like poison to their bank accounts), many of Chicago’s evening hot spots began implementing dress codes with rules clearly targeting black and Hispanic popular attire. The new rules were full of things like “no backward caps, no loose or baggy pants, no underwear showing, no ‘do rags.'” Popular music – especially urban and hip hop – was full of icons who dressed this way to make a statement, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that such rules would block mostly black and Hispanic people from the clubs unless they changed how they dressed. The foul cries came fast and loud – RACISTS!!
In a related moment of clarity, Barack Obama actually said something true recently. (shocking, ain’t it?) In response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama gave a rambling speech identifying Trayvon Martin as a symbol of the problems and racial barriers still facing African Americans today. In that speech, he said:
“Few African Americans today can say they’ve never had the experience of being followed in a department store by suspicious security guards. We’ve all had that unsettling sensation of walking across the street and hearing the clicks of locks on the car doors beside us. It happened to me often before I became a senator.” He was weaving a narrative of threads connected to the general media conclusion that George Zimmerman feared for his life and killed Trayvon Martin only because he was black, and that these events echoed the experience of most blacks in America today of being distrusted and harassed for the crime of being black.
I have another theory. A theory, incidentally, shared by Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, in a rare moment of cultural honesty. Responding to complaints about widespread abuse of Philadelphia citizens by flash mobs:
- “Take those God darn hoodies down, especially in the summer. Pull your pants up and buy a belt ’cause no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt. Nobody.”
- “If you walk into somebody’s office with your hair uncombed and a pick in the back, and your shoes untied, and your pants half down, tattoos up and down your arms and on your neck, and you wonder why somebody won’t hire you? They don’t hire you ’cause you look like you’re crazy!”
I finally understood my theory and quit worrying about my reactions to the people I saw around me in my many travels when I moved to NYC and it afforded me the opportunity to put my feelings to the test. Just a few days ago, while riding home from work, I chanced to have a pleasant conversation with a nicely dressed young African American man who was taking his son to a play downtown. He wore a crisp-looking sport jacket and smoothly ironed pants, and his son was obviously dressed (by his father, no doubt) for a night of culture. No hoodies, no ballcaps, no ridiculously loose pants hanging below the waist. I noticed these two because I overheard the father warning his son that he was going someplace very nice and had to be on his best behavior or they wouldn’t come back again. I smiled at him and he chuckled and said “you have to start warning him early or we’ll be in the lobby by the second act because he won’t sit still.” We had a nice little chat about the importance of teaching your kids manners and then I got off at Columbus Circle and changed trains. At no point did my lizard brain warn me of danger. At no point did I regard this man and his son with anything other than a smile and a kind word.
Later in the ride (on my new train and crossing into Brooklyn), I realized that my traveling companions were making me nervous. No one had done anything untoward, and I was likely perfectly safe, but my lizard brain didn’t like what it saw. My car was filled with all kinds of people of different races, but, as we were approaching Prospect Park and Church Avenue – neighborhoods with higher crime rates and poverty problems – most of them looked unkempt…like street thugs. Lots of hoodies on during the hottest week of the year, lots of loose fitting pants, lots of bandannas and t’shirts with nasty language on them, lots of huge tattoos. And that’s when the light bulb went on for me. All the times I’ve seen a black man on the street and walked a little faster, or passed a group of Hispanic men leaning against a car and turned my head to avoid catching their eyes…I was never responding to the color of their skin. I was responding to other contextual variables. It can’t be that my negative, fearful reactions are caused by skin color if I’m perfectly at ease with men with the same skin color who are behaving a little differently than is common.
No…it’s not racism if it’s not based on race, but on behavior or culture. I detest almost all rap…and, ironically, the few rap hits that I’ve actually enjoyed hearing were sung by white artists like Eminem or clean-imaged stand-outs like Will Smith. The problem, however, is not race – it’s culture. I can’t stand listening to songs that disparage women, reduce sex to a game, glorify drug culture, gang warfare, and victimology, and decry all authority figures as the source of all urban unrest and anger. It’s corrosive, it’s not an accurate or uplifting portrayal of the real world, and it terrifies me.
But isn’t that the political rub – dislike any aspect of black or Hispanic urban culture and you are RACIST. Because all of those things you evil whites dislike about urban culture are caused by your racist institutions and behaviors anyway. Blacks wouldn’t be walking around like gang-bangers if we weren’t so afraid of them that we made them feel isolated on a crowded sidewalk or singled out in a busy department store!
Well perhaps, my friends, it’s the other way around. We choose our clothing because it represents our priorities when defining how the world sees us. Girls who wear uber-minis and skin-tight jeans want to be seen as sexy on some level or they wouldn’t wear that attire. The most important thing, evidently, in urban culture, is to be seen as ghetto-tough. The hoodies, designed to cover up parts of your face that would identify you and thus make you instinctively more imposing, the foul t’shirts, the baggy pants…they all send the message loud and clear – “Question me and I will f*** you up.” Or if you want to be more charitable, it may be more along the lines of “I’ve given up and don’t care how I look at all.” That our culture has evolved to where this is the message young minorities in the inner cities want to send is one of the saddest things about this world we now inhabit. But that whites might react to that culture with instinctive alarm is not a matter or race…it’s just common sense.
If people like Barack Obama really wanted to end racial disparities and unite this country, they would, perhaps, look in the mirror and realize that the day they stopped dressing like punks and put on a suit was the day they stopped drawing our unavoidable suspicions.