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Philly’s Ski Mask Ban Is Just Another Tool for Cops to Target Black Youth

The policy is part of a familiar playbook where governments enact racist fashion bans in the name of “curtailing crime.”

Philadelphia police officers stand guard as people protest the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors national summit outside the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown on July 1, 2023, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The City Council of Philadelphia passed a ban in December on ski masks as a purported crime-fighting measure. According to the ordinance, wearing ski masks will be prohibited in parks, schools, public transit and other city-owned buildings, carrying with it a fine of $250 for each offense, and up to $2,000 if a mask is worn during the commission of a crime. The council bill was passed with a 13-2 vote.

Cited in the passed bill were violent crimes committed by ski mask wearers as well as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s recent decision to ban ski masks on trains, trolleys, buses and subways. The policy is part of a familiar playbook where governments enact racist fashion bans in the name of “curtailing crime” — including municipal bans of saggy pants and hoodies — that actually work to criminalize communities of color. Such examples include towns in New Jersey, Tennessee and Louisiana.

As Ernest Owens correctly points out in Philadelphia Magazine, it’s a form of respectability politics, which exists throughout numerous communities of color. Such race-based policing dates back to the policing of Zoot Suits.

Philly’s “new” law is undoubtedly the city’s attempt to preemptively strike against purported crime in the city. It says to residents that the city is being proactive — answering the call expressed in a recent Pew Charitable Trust 2023 poll, in which Philadelphians from all backgrounds said they wanted elected leaders to prioritize reducing the city’s crime rate in the coming years.

But the ban communicates another message; a message about who we fear versus who we forgive.

As a teenager, I knew that society was scared of me — with every clutched purse, suspicious store attendant and police stop. None of those times was I wearing a mask of any kind. The real purpose of these bans is to police Black youth — to “correct” Black behavior.

Consider what polls say about our “beliefs” about Black male youth. White people see Black youth as older and angrier compared to white youth. Black girls as young as 5 are seen as less innocent than white girls. White people view Black boys as less innocent compared to white boys. Cops see all Black children as less innocent compared to white children. The widespread belief that Black people physically can tolerate more pain impacts how Black people are handled by police, as well as medical professionals.

The news media doesn’t help with the mischaracterization of Black people, particularly male youth.

For white audiences, viewing negative depictions of Black people promotes harmful perceptions about Black people in society as well as unfavorable views on diversity-related policy issues such as affirmative action and policing. Just watching the news may either help create stereotypes or reinforce stereotypical views of Black people as criminal perpetrators and whites as the victims.

If fighting crime is the actual goal, however, a ski mask ban is fool’s gold. According to Solomon Furious Worlds, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania:

Public safety is very important and an understandable concern for the public. But there is no evidence to suggest that ski masks cause or encourage violent crime.… Giving police the authority to stop civilians without suspicion of unlawful activity is unconstitutional.… A better strategy would be to put more dollars (and time) towards programs like mental health resources and housing assistance.

Unfortunately, politicians often only consider mental health when speaking of those whose crimes society forgives: white male youth.

Dylann Roof was described as having mental health issues; “one hateful person.” Blame for Payton Gendron murdering Black people in Buffalo, New York, was aimed at the failure to properly diagnose or treat him. James Holmes was described as a “typical American kid.”

Politicians and defenders of gun rights often focus on mental health as the primary way to address mass shootings, which are more often committed by white males. Meanwhile, Trayvon Martin is declared guilty of smoking weed at school and wearing a hoodie, and Mike Brown was “no angel.”

Largely to blame is our ignorance — or selective ignoring — of the history of white men who turn to racist violence as a result of issues that (unevenly) impact us all: emotional, mental and financial strains as a result of our nation’s foreign and domestic policies that emphasize capitalism over compassion.

Rather the confront this phenomenon with education, Black history education is whitewashed — if not outright refused — and books on race are banned. Then, racist connections are made between crime and hip hop, as is the case with the ski masks — linking them to criminal activity, such as that of ski mask-wearing rapper Pooh Shiesty, who was sentenced to five years on a gun charge.

But criminalizing hip-hop music and culture has been shown not to reduce crime, and neither has criminalizing ski masks. The ski mask ban simply gives police the green light to unlawfully stop Black people, namely youth, as they walk on the streets of Philadelphia. Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker is a proponent of stop and frisk.

If this is what Philadelphia leadership wants, if randomly stopping Black youth and criminalizing what Black youth wear is elected leaders’ chosen strategy to make Philadelphians, white and Black, feel “safer,” then they should simply say so. If entering Black youth into the criminal legal system for failure to afford a fine of $250 satisfies politicians and police as effectively fighting “crime,” they should simply say so. Stand on that lie.

I would suggest that the city focus on proactive measures recommended by the ACLU of Pennsylvania — strengthen public education, address food insecurity, increase access to affordable housing, and provide youth with more extracurricular activities. But don’t say the ban is to create a “psychological deterrent” or to not criminalize mask-wearing. Just be honest and say that racism is your answer for “fighting crime.”

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