Geraldo Rivera was right to apologize for his outrageous comment that Trayvon Martin’s hoodie was responsible for his death.
Women are all too familiar with this kind of accusation. If you’re not dressed like Mother Teresa, then it’s your own fault when men whistle and yell sexist comments at you as you walk down the street, sexually harass you at work or even rape you at a house party.
Latinos are also all too familiar with this blame-the-victim-and-his-attire attitude.
Growing up in East Los Angeles during the early 1990s, I quickly learned that there were some fashion trends — at first it was certain colors, then specific hairstyles, followed by baggy pants — that teachers, police officers, the media and even many people in my own community constantly blamed for everything from violence and crime to the supposed lack of motivation and aspirations of young Chicanos like myself.
When I was Martin’s age, my friends and I were constantly pulled over at gunpoint by the Los Angeles Police Department and asked whether we had weapons or drugs in our car. The excuse for stopping us was always that we “fit the description” of someone the officers were looking for.
None of us were gang members. None of us had ever been arrested. But most of us fit the vague description of what “a criminal looked like”— poor and working class young men of color.
We were deemed presumably dangerous because in the minds of these mostly white, but sometimes brown cops (who often treated us even worse), all Latino youth were seen as probable threats. Consequently, they felt it was their job to “serve and protect” the city of Los Angeles by racially profiling us, by following us, by harassing us.
This same way of thinking may have led George Zimmerman to kill Martin. Zimmerman should be charged.
The problem isn’t the external styles of dress of racial and ethnic minorities, but the internal mindsets of some police officers and vigilantes empowered by “stand your ground” gun laws.
It’s not about the hoodie, as Rivera finally acknowledged, after his own son called him out for the comment.
In gentrified inner-city neighborhoods across the nation, white “hipsters“ also wear hoodies, have tattoos and sag their pants. Yet in the minds of far too many people in the United States, including cops and “neighborhood watch captains,” these youth aren’t seen as potential threats because they don’t carry the burdens of being born poor and black or brown.
Until we deal with racial stereotypes, until we recognize how they are created and reproduced, many more kids of color will continue to die.
Chris Zepeda-Millán is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago. An earlier version of this essay appeared at Huffington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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