Accessory to Murder: We Can't Conceal the Deadly Consequences of the Prejudices We Carry Around

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In March Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera created a minor media ruckus with his outlandish and decidedly racist assertion that the killing of Trayvon Martin on February 26 was caused in part by his choice of clothing. As Rivera saw it, the unarmed 17-year-old was shot to death because he had decided to wear a hooded sweatshirt when he went out to pick up some snacks at a local convenience store, and because he had pulled the hood over his head when it began to rain.

Perhaps a bowler and umbrella would have been a better wardrobe choice. Or maybe a baseball cap or Stetson would have been preferable when Martin headed to the local 7-Eleven.

The implication of Rivera's callous remark is that "boodles" worn by young black males identify their wearers as violent and dangerous. According to Rivera, pulling a hood over one's head is like getting a prison tattoo or sporting gang colors--it sends a signal of malicious and threatening intent. So when folks in the larger white community spot a young black man sporting a hoodie, their fears and anxieties are provoked, and this sometimes results in tragic and unfortunate violence against innocent people such as Martin.

Rivera is not the first person to suggest victims provoke violence by wearing the wrong item. Women have been told for centuries that rape is the result of poor clothing choices. When a woman chooses to put on a dress or blouse that makes her too "attractive" or "alluring," she supposedly inflames the sexual passions and aggression of her date, co-worker, boss, or any passing male. As a result of her clothing choices, she is seen as a woman asking for trouble, and this can result in unfortunate and tragic violence.

Curiously news commentators and pundits like Rivera never suggest that middle-class or wealthy people are robbed, assaulted, or murdered because of what they wear. No defense attorney ever tries to convince a jury that his working class or unemployed client was provoked to violence by the wealthy victim's ostentatious Armani or Brooks Brothers suit. Presumably it is only minorities and women who have to be careful of clothing choices that might give people the wrong idea.

There was a fashion mistake the day Martin was killed, but it was not the hoodie. The primary reason Martin died was that his killer, George Zimmerman, was sporting a loaded handgun.

In America millions of ordinary folks are free to slip a pistol into their purse or pocket and stroll out into the neighborhood. Folks in Congress and the National Rifle Association have been working for decades to get permission for people to carry concealed weapons across state boundaries and to wear them hidden in all sorts of public places, including malls, national parks, schools, and churches. …