"But I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was."
-- Geraldo Rivera on Fox News
I don't need to tell you that this is, in classic Geraldo fashion, a shockingly dumb thing to say. It's cut-rate reductionism expressed in the most clumsy and artless way possible, and the Huffington Post, also as it's wont to do, is already tearing Geraldo apart for it through various headlines that feign outrage in the name of page hits.
But here's the thing: While putting the blame for the death of Trayvon Martin as much on his hoodie as on the bullet fired by George Zimmerman may be ridiculous at face value, the larger point that Geraldo is making is more sound than you might think. He's just making that point very, very badly.
It goes something like this: Like it or not, a book actually is judged by its cover. There's a calculated reason that the cover of a book looks the way it does -- it's designed to immediately impart a very specific sense of recognition in the potential reader and to be a fair advertisement for the book's contents. There are certain things about your personal "cover" that can't be changed: Your race, your age, your facial features (in theory anyway). Your physical characteristics generally are what they are and therefore it's thoroughly unfair and flat-out wrong for someone to judge you based solely on them.
But the way you choose to dress or otherwise adorn yourself is exactly that -- a choice. Your choice. And while in a perfect world no one would draw immediate conclusions about you based on your personal style, news flash: We don't live in a perfect world, and ignoring or defiantly thumbing your nose at the fact that there may be certain unintended consequences to the image you choose to project is both irresponsible and thick-headed.
Is it unfair that a lot of very dumb people immediately look at a kid in a hoodie, a ball cap and low-slung pants and think "thug?" Yes.
Is it unfair that a douchebag in a bar looks at a girl in a tiny skirt, a midriff-bearing top, minus a bra, with a pierced belly-button and a tramp stamp and thinks "she wants sex?" Yes.
But again -- life isn't fair.
I have tattoos. About 20 of them, at last count. At no point while I was inking the hell out of my body did I accept anything less than full responsibility for the image that I knew I might be projecting to the world. I understood what I was signing on for when I got the things and accepted the potential consequences.
Now before anyone shouts that I'm blaming the victims*, let me go ahead and shoot the hostage: I am -- to an extent. No, unlike Geraldo I don't think that wearing a hoodie is what got Trayvon Martin killed -- not by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of people wear hoodies besides the ones who, as Geraldo puts it, are seen on surveillance tapes sticking up 7-11s. But again, his larger point about "stylizing yourself as a gangster" and how it might very well lead people to "perceive you as a menace" makes a lot of sense. As he says, the "cover" that we present to the public is in fact what people will judge you on, at least at first.
And that first impression that George Zimmerman had of Trayvon Martin -- whether caused by the color of the kid's skin or some other factor -- wound up being his last. Because the conclusion that Zimmerman wrongly jumped to got Trayvon killed.
Adding: Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post feels quite a bit differently about this subject but articulates her points really well (and makes a pretty amusing argument for the idea that, by his logic, everyone Geraldo meets should automatically assume he's an aging 70s porn star). It's very much worth taking a look at what she has to say.
*Just wanted to say that I added an "s" to the end of "victim" because people are already assuming that when I said victim, I specifically meant that I was blaming Trayvon Martin. I wasn't and I'm not. I'm talking about in general -- that each of us bears some responsibility for how we choose to present ourselves to the general public.