So there’s a heartbreaking, controversial public story and Geraldo Rivera made a stupid, insensitive comment about it. Which is good reason not to write about it; it’s dog bites man. Rivera doesn’t deserve the attention for saying, as he did on Fox and Friends today, that Trayvon Martin’s hoodie “is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman [Martin's shooter] was.”
But his nonsense also doesn’t deserve to go unchallenged, and it’s at least a useful example of the difference between using a tragedy to look at the way our society and laws work, and using a tragedy to say “Look at me!” (It’s also ironic, considering that, as of the beginning of this week, Fox News was scarcely noticing the Martin outrage while other news outlets were covering it heavily.)
Like many idiotic statements, Geraldo’s has about half a legitimate idea inside it: in this case, that young men of color are, like it or not, going to be judged and affected by subconscious, superficial reactions. I’m biased toward a piece from my own magazine, of course, but Touré put this much better in his essay, “How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin”:
You will have to make allowances for other people’s racism. That’s part of the burden of being black. We can be defiant and dead or smart and alive. I’m not saying you can’t wear what you want, but your clothes are a red herring. They’ll blame it on your hoodie or your jeans when the real reason they decided you were a criminal is that you’re black.
The difference between this and Geraldo’s rant is that Touré talks about how racism latches on to signifiers like clothing without putting equal blame on the racism and the signifiers. Here’s one thing that might make a gun-toting racist feel justified to shoot: a black teenager walking down his street in a hoodie. Here’s another thing that might make a gun-toting racist feel justified to shoot: a black teenager walking down his street without a hoodie.
Rivera’s comments were typically, offensively Geraldonic in a couple of ways. First, they were about getting attention with hyperbole (“Well, I have a different take…”). Second, they shoehorned the case into some larger rant Rivera wanted to make about kids these days: that Martin was wearing a hoodie because he was “stylizing” himself as a “gangsta.” That overlooks not just that pretty much every middle-aged white person I know in my neighborhood wears hoodies, but that Martin may have been wearing a hood to go out and get Skittles because it was raining. (As Rivera has been known to do.)
But beyond Rivera’s victim-blaming and preaching and simple lack of logic, the real problem here is empathy. He seems to try for it, or at least to show the signs of it. He likens Martin to his own son, Cruz–but to set up a lecture saying that Martin helped bring the shooting on himself. Compare that to Barack Obama’s response to a press-conference question about Martin—”If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”:
It’s not that things like hoodies, and how some people see them, don’t matter here–it’s why, after all, there was a “Million-Hoodie March” in protest of Martin’s shooting and the way it was handled. But the point of that demonstration is that a hoodie doesn’t really define a person–in the bigger picture, it’s superficial and a distraction. Not unlike what comes out of Geraldo Rivera’s mouth.