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Hoodie Politics: Trayvon Martin and Racist Violence in Post-Racial America

Too many young people are not only being stripped of their hope and dignity, but also their lives.

People along with New York City Council members attend a press conference to call for justice in the February 26 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on the steps of City Hall, March 28, 2012, in New York City.

Part of the Series

The killing of a young African-American boy, Trayvon Martin, by an overzealous white Hispanic security guard who appears to have capitulated to the dominant post-racial presumption that equates the culture of criminality with the culture of blackness, has devolved into a spectacle. While there is plenty of moral outrage to go around, a recognition that racism is alive and well in America, and that justice has been hijacked by those who can afford it, the broader and more fundamental questions and analyses are not being raised. Complex issues get lost when spectacular events are taken over by a media frenzy that feeds on sound bites and simplified answers. Yet, under the intense spotlight on the personal defects of the two men involved, important issues such as the social and human costs of a corporate-driven gun culture, the privatization of security forces, the price paid by poor minority youth whose every act is criminalized, and the crimes committed through an all-embracing racism are shrouded in darkness, off stage and invisible. To bolster the incredulous claim that we live in a post-racial society, crimes such as these are often isolated from a larger set of socio-economic forces that might provide a broader understanding of both the needless death of a 17-year-old black youth but also its relationship to a much more all-encompassing war on youth that is causing massive suffering and needless deaths among many young people in America.[1]

While it is the tendency of liberals to rush to universalize the deeply felt personal loss that resulted from Trayvon Martin’s death, the rosy raceless sentiment was ruptured when President Obama uncharacteristically drew attention to his own racial difference and suggested that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. But the fact of the matter is that since the dawn of the post-civil rights era young black and brown youth have been routinely and radically othered as a generation of suspects, if not a dangerous scourge. While poor minority youth may garner some sympathy when their needless deaths get public attention, too many of them experience an existential and real death every day that often goes unnoticed. The popular slogan “We are all Trayvon” may be paved with good intentions, but it bears the burden of hiding more than it reveals. Young poor minorities are not “us”, they are the excluded, the other, the excess and the disposable. What needs to be remembered is that they have been made voiceless, powerless and invisible in America. Marginalized by race or class and forcibly excluded from the American dream, they register more as a threat to be either contained or eliminated than as an object of compassion and social investment. They are not merely excluded but punished for living outside of the power relations that give rise to the corrupt privileges of the Second Gilded Age. One notable example is made clear in the question raised by Rich Benjamin in a New York Times op-ed where he writes: “After all, why did the police treat Mr. Martin like a criminal, instead of Mr. Zimmerman, his assailant? Why was the black corpse tested for drugs and alcohol, but the living perpetrator wasn’t?” [2]

What is missing in this debate over the legalities of the case (as against questions of justice) is a hard look at the underlying economic, racial and political conditions that make such a senseless act of violence possible. While it is easy to ridicule as racist Geraldo Rivera’s claim that the boys “hoodie” was somehow responsible for his death, as if it carried an unequivocal and dangerous signifier for all young people, regardless of what their race, neighborhood, or class location might be. The real question in this case is, what kind of society allows young black and brown youth to be killed precisely because they are wearing a hoodie? Indeed the politics of diversion runs deep in American culture. And questions concerning what kind of society we have now become as reflected in such a tragic killing are simply ignored. Such questions are dangerous because they invoke wider social considerations and prevent us from wallowing in a purely privatized discourse that, in the end, for instance, only allows us to focus on the most narrow and restricted of issues such as the personality of the shooter, George Zimmerman. Defined by the parameters of an utterly privatized discourse the only question that seems to matter is, “Who is George Zimmerman and why did he shoot this young man?” Actually, the more plausible question is, “What kind of society creates a George Zimmerman along with a formative culture that elevates vigilantism over justice, emotion over reason, fear over shared responsibilities and violence over compassion?” This is not to suggest that Zimmerman should not be brought to justice through a fair trial, but that Zimmerman’s dreadful act is symptomatic of a larger war being waged on poor and minority youth that places them in ongoing conditions of uncertainty regarding their education, health care, employment and also their future, particularly in terms of whether they will live or die. Nor does the narrow focus on the prevalence of a gun culture, gated communities and private security forces (Rambos for hire) in the United States provide either an adequate focus for understanding why, “Military force has replaced democratic idealism as the main source of US influence” or why war is a source of national pride rather than alarm.[3] Nor does it tell us why the spectacle of violence has become the greatest source of entertainment in American popular culture, furthering enabling, “the process whereby civil society increasingly organizes itself for the production of violence.”[4]

An echo of the conditions that are responsible for Trayvon Martin’s senseless killing can be heard in the words of politicians who embrace a culture of cruelty, suggesting that children who have predetermined illnesses not be given access to health care. It is evident in laws that sentence young people to adult prisons; it is clear in economic policies that drain income from working families and their children in order to line the pockets of the extremely and unproductively wealthy and private hedge fund managers. It is also visible in a carceral state that wages war on the poor rather than on poverty, defunds public schools so that they can be privatized, and demonizes young people while teaching them that punishing them is more important than educating them. A culture of compassion has been replaced by a culture of fear that radically forstalls future possibility. The manufactured national hysteria over private security has become a disease, massaged by endless moral panics about poor people, immigrants, minorities and dangerous youth, and all the while making us less safe and ever more vulnerable to violence. A consumer and hyper-militarized society that defines all relationships according to market values and enshrine a “survival-of-the-fittest ethic” leaves behind a string of abandoned visions, dreams, hopes and belief in the future. Symptoms of ethical, political and economic impoverishment are all around us.

When traces of the social contract and our responsibility to present and future generations were still alive in the United States (prior to the late 1970s), many Americans believed it took a social state and a strong community to raise a child. That is, they believed in social safety nets that offered social protections, decent health care, child care and other important social rights that affirmed the centrality of, and shared experience of, the common good, if not democracy itself. What many Americans now accept is a mode of “failed sociality” that has turned the principles of democracy against itself, deforming both the language of freedom and justice that made equality a viable idea and political goal. Community as a metaphor for the common good and social contract is dead in America. Community is now gated and policed, and responsibility is reduced to a private and privately contracted affair shaped by a set of values that breathe a kind of mad savagery into a new form of economic Darwinism. In this market-driven, hypermasculine and militarized society, shared modes of sociality that provide collective protections and expand the rights of the social contract are now viewed with disdain. In fact, for some pundits such as Rick Santorum, they are derided as a pathology, a religiously inflected notion of evil and sin that poisons the body politic.

Young people now find themselves in a world in which sociality has been reduced to an economic battle ground over materialistic needs waged by an army of nomadic individuals, just as more and more people find their behavior pathologized, criminalized and subject to state violence. Youth now find themselves in a social order in which bonds of trust have been replaced by bonds of fear. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it: “Trust is replaced by universal suspicion. All bonds are assumed to be untrustworthy, unreliable, trap-and-ambush-like – until proven otherwise.”[5] All forms of social solidarity are now abandoned to a free-market logic that has individualized responsibility and reduced civic values to the obligations of consumer-driven self interest advanced against all other interests. How else to explain the fate of generations of young people, especially poor white, brown and black youth, who find themselves in a society in which 500,000 young people are incarcerated and 2.5 million are arrested annually, a society in which, by the age of 23, “almost a third of Americans have been arrested for a crime.”[6] What kind of society do we live in that allows 1.6 million kids to be homeless at any given time in a year? What social order allows massive inequalities in wealth and income to produce a politically and morally dysfunctional social order in which, “45 percent of U.S. residents live in households that struggle to make ends meet, [which] breaks down to 39 percent of all adults and 55 percent of all children”?[7] What is clear is that we now live in a society that invests more in what Etienne Balibar calls “the death zones of humanity” than in life itself, at least when it comes to poor youth.[8]

What the shooting of Trayvon Martin tells us is that too many young people are not only being stripped of their hope and dignity, but also their lives. American society has become what Steve Herbert and Elizabeth Brown refer to as a “political culture of hyper punitiveness,” one in which it has become easier and apparently more acceptable to punish children who do not obey, who refuse to be invisible, who question authority – children whose presence reminds us of how far we have moved from the ideals that once allowed Americans to make a claim on democracy.[9] We now live in a bifurcated country of gated communities organized to protect at all costs their isolated privileges and desperately poor no-go zones, also isolated and armed to the teeth. Living in these paranoid life worlds we have become a nation that emulates the fictional Dexter, the much-celebrated serial killer in the cable TV series of the same name. Crime now drives social policy and vigilante culture increasingly plays a prominent role in shaping American life. This is a bunker culture where guns rule, corporations have learned to capitalize on the growing culture of cruelty and punishment, Hollywood thrives on the spectacle of racial violence and the American government devolves into a torture state. But it is also a society that has intensified its racism behind the cloak of colorblindness and other post-racial myths while at the same time exercising with more diligence its policing and punishing functions. Glen Ford, the editor of Black Agenda touches on this in his comment about why the George Zimmermans of the world think that they can get away with assaulting and punishing black youth. He writes: “They do these things because they can, and they think they can because they believe they’ve been given permission by a significant segment of society to carry out these attacks on young black men. And inevitably, if they are given what they believe is the green light, some people are going to take it.”[10]

Given these contexts and conditions, the issue is not whether a crime takes place because a young person wears a hoodie, but, what kind of society do we live in when a child can be shot for emulating a style that is associated with that of black and brown urban youth? Since the arrival of the Puritans, punishment has been inextricably woven into the fabric of American life, and increasingly it targets young people who have been pushed to the margins of society. Hence, it is not surprising that in America there is a rush to punish individuals for committing crimes but no longer a passion or commitment to examine the larger issues that produce the crimes. We now believe that some individuals were just born evil and our responsibility begins and ends with their expulsion-not their salvation. We gloat over justice being served by sentencing young people such as Dharun Ravi to years in jail for a horrific, homophobic crime that prompted the suicide of his roommate Tyler Clementi, but we never raise questions about the forces at work in a society that daily reproduce and reinforce this hateful culture in the first place.

Too many young people have not only been expelled from American society, but they are being punished with a kind of mass vengeance that suggests the emergence of a new political and economic culture in which life has become cheap and democratic values extinct. Trayvon Martin’s death should not be trivialized by the distracting discourse of hoodies; nor is reducible to the actions of a potentially mentally unbalanced shooter. It is not (yet) about a clear-cut act of racial violence, nor, for that matter, simply about the isolated and yet shocking death of a young man. It is about the death of the idea of justice, not merely its practice. It is symptomatic of the way in which an entire generation of young, poor, minority youth are being punished, excluded, starved and thrown up in the elimination system of a new and violent, self-mutilating social order. It is about the stench and reality of death being promulgated by a society that has become cruel, corporate-owned, politically corrupt and morally bankrupt. Martin’s death is symptomatic of a war on young, poor, white and minority youth, the destruction of youthful human minds and bodies, and the slide of a hyper-market-driven country into a moral and political coma which enables it to function without apology, without ethical considerations into a world of power relations, values, and practices that are punishing in their effects and cruel in their conception. For many young people, the hoodie is not the central danger. Violence is the central force in the lives of poor minority youth, and the rhetoric and metaphors through which it gains legitimacy extend from an ever-pervasive reality of police brutality to the modes of punishment creep that extend from their schools and the streets to their homes. Violence now is the major force for producing identities, desires and social policies. Unfortunately, for too many young people, violence has become the normal condition of their lives, the only space left where many of them can even recognize how their agency might be defined and what their future has to offer them. What Trayvon Martin’s death tells the American public is that, as Patricia Ticineto Clough and Craig Willse have pointed out in a different context, we live in a society, “in which the production and circulation of death functions as political and economic currency.”[11] The price paid for that is not simply the tragic death of a young African-American boy, but an ongoing assault on millions of poor young people in this country. The cost is high, and with it comes the tragic violation of human life and the death of democracy itself. Surely, in remembering the death of Trayvon Martin, we can and must do more than don a hoodie to signify the superficial solidarity of the new post-racial world order.

This article may not be republished without permission from the author.


1. I take this up in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (New York: Palgrave, 2010).

2. Rich Menjamin, “The Gated Community Mentality,” New York Times (March 30, 2012) p. A27.

3. James Carroll, “A Nation Lost,” Boston Globe (April 22, 2003) online at Common Dreams.

4. Jorge Mariscal, “Lethal and compassionate: the militarization of culture,” CounterPunch (May 3, 2003).

5. Zygmunt Bauman, “Wasted Lives” (New York: Polity Press, 2004), pp. 92-93

6. Erica Goode, “Many in U.S. Are Arrested by Age 23, Study Finds,” New York Times (December 19, 2011).

7. Reuters, “45% Struggle in US to Make Ends Meet,” MSNBC: Business Stocks and Economy (November 22, 2011).

8. Etienne Balibar, “Outline of a Topography of Cruelty: Citizenship and Civility in the Era of Global Violence,” in “We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 128.

9. Steve Herbert and Elizabeth Brown, “Conceptions of Space and Crime in the Punitive Neoliberal City,” Antipode (2006), p. 757.

10. Glen Ford, “Vilification of Young Black Youth Deeply Embedded in American Culture,” The Real News (April 1, 2012).

11. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Craig Willse, “Beyond Biopolitics: The Governance of Life and Death,” in Patricia Ticineto Clough and Craig Willse, eds. “Beyond Biopolitics” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 3.