The Hoodie and the Hijab

by Jennifer Collins

A lot has been written about the about the murder of 17-year-old Florida student Trayvon Martin and the police handling of the case. And I don’t think I can really add anything new to the discussion, but I wanted to write about it anyway because I’m both angered and saddened by it.

The police and the US justice system have utterly and grossly failed the Martin family, to put it mildly. Trayvon’s shooter, the self-appointed neighbourhood watchman, George Zimmerman, hasn’t been arrested, having found shelter in Florida’s “stand your ground law”, which ostensibly protects those who kill in self-defence. But this is doesn’t seem to be a case of self-defence. Zimmerman allegedly pursued Trayvon, a scuffle ensued and Zimmerman shot Trayvon in the chest. Trayvon had no weapon. All he had on him was a bottle of ice tea and a packet of skittles. Zimmerman said he felt “threatened” by Trayvon; that he felt Trayvon was acting suspiciously and for this reason called the police to report him before pursuing him. (Presumably because he was a young black man in wealthy, gated neighbourhood. What could he be doing there? It couldn’t be that he lived there, right? He must have been there to cause trouble.)

When the police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman pleaded self-defence and the police took him at his word. The facts were clear. Everything fit the bill. Young black man = hoodlum. Older white guy = upstanding member of the community who felt so threatened by this hooded, unarmed young man, he had no choice but to shoot him dead. Cased closed. All is right with the world.

The local police service and Zimmerman essentially employed the same racial profiling that means black people in the UK, for instance, are 30 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched. A German court has just legitimised this kind of racial profiling by ruling that German police have the right to single out black and foreign-looking train passengers to check for their immigration status. The ruling emerged from the case of a young black man who refused to show his ID to the police as he was sick of repeatedly being  asked to do so. Police removed the man from the train he was travelling on because of his refusal and one of the officers stated that when deciding which travellers to check he targeted those who seemed obviously foreign,  according to a report in The Local. He used skin colour as one of the criteria for picking out foreigners. The court ruled that this was legal, as the officer was guided by his experience.

Culture of victim-blaming

Some commentators have sought to shift the responsibility for Trayvon’s murder onto Trayvon himself. Conservative talk-show host, Geraldo Rivera, perversely commented that Trayvon’s hoodie was just as much to blame for his death as Zimmerman. The message is clear: if you’re a person of colour you need to ensure you appear as harmless as possible. Don’t wear anything that might make you look suspicious, because, hell, you look damned suspicious anyway.

Rivera has since *sort of* apologised for his comments, but this kind of victim-blaming is recurrent. By the logic of “victim-blaming”, Shaima Alawadi, the Muslim-American mother-of-five beaten to death this week in California for her religious beliefs was to blame for her own murder. You know, she looked like Muslim in her hijab and, therefore, put herself in danger*. She’s got no one but herself to blame. Just the way women who wear provocative clothing are asking to be raped and only have themselves to blame. How dare they dress in a fashion that might give men the “wrong signals” or arouse their sexual desires. I mean, can you really expect men to restrain themselves? Do you really expect a person to question their prejudices and not search, suspect, arrest or shoot someone because they are black or “Muslim-looking”and consequently more likely to be a criminal or terrorist from this sclerotic vantage point? The culture of victim-blaming shields not only the perpetrators of such crimes from bearing any real responsibility, but also shields wider society. It allows us to continue to hold onto our prejudiced views, ensuring we are never required to question our own complicity. It contributes to the continuation of racist and sexist structures and norms.

Geraldo Rivera comments on Trayvon Martin’s hoodie


* The “Muslim looking” idea reminded me that French President Sarkozy caused a bit of a storm this week with his “Muslim appearance” comment during a French radio interview. Full story via Storyful here