Over at NewsBusters the token conservative at MSNBC, former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough, is quoted as blaming conservatives for Trayvon Martin’s death:
Al Sharpton and Lawrence O’Donnell are not the only ones on MSNBC cynically exploiting the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. On his Morning Joe program today, Joe Scarborough said that conservatives are “somehow suggesting that he deserved getting shot in the chest with a 9 millimeter.”
Let’s examine Scarborough’s statement in slightly more depth and ask the question, did Trayvon Martin play a role in his own death? Did he “deserve” to get shot? Was Martin’s hoodie (now becoming symbolic of racial injustice) part of the issue?
It is a tough question to ask – did an article of clothing play a part in a teenager losing his life? It is an even more difficult question to honestly answer without being tagged as a racist – but consider these salient facts: black inner-city youths have been conditioned since the late 80’s to affect a lifestyle characterized and popularized by rapper Tupac Shakur, the outward representation of which was the wearing of hoodies (with the hood shrouding the head and face) and sagging pants. This “style” is said to have risen in the 70′s via prisoners in California state penitentiaries. The Mexican/Spanish/Black gang members who were imprisoned there used their belts as weapons and given the limited budget of the prison systems, their belts were simply taken away – the result was sagging pants, which in turn, became somewhat of an identifying mark of a former prisoner on the streets upon release.
But why would young people glorify and seek to emulate ex-cons?
Published in Sociological Forum, Vol. 16, No. 4, December 2001, Dalton Conley and Miriam Ryvicker related their research in this essay titled “Race, Class, and Eyes Upon the Street: Public Space, Social Control, and the Economies of Three Urban Communities”:
In addition to the social processes described above, the ways in which the authors’ subjects make meaning out of their everyday lives also function as mechanisms of social control. For the youth in Anderson’s book, meaning revolves around the need to gain the respect, as well as fear, of one’s peers. While the code of the street has developed largely out of a sense of alienation from mainstream society, an individual’s participation in the street code represents a strong oppositional stance toward mainstream culture. Adoption of the code means that one could distinguish one’s self from those who have presumably sold out, thereby bolstering the participant’s self-esteem. He can continue to increase his sense of power by proving himself in fights and stickups. He can also reinforce his self-esteem by acquiring expensive fashion items that serve as status symbols and that allow him to emulate the image of the drug dealer, and possibly by moving his way up in the drug economy.
So dressing up as a drug dealer became all the rage for these teenagers. Then Madison Avenue took over and created a “style” that spread to more kids as the popularity of rap music and the “gansta” culture grew and crossed cultural, economic and racial boundaries.
From the research of Robert Garot of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Jack Katz of UCLA: “Provocative Looks: Gang Appearance and Dress Codes in an Inner-City Alternative School” (2004, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 33(6):735-766):
Social commentators have often bemoaned that so many inner city youth pay so much attention to and money on clothes (Anderson, 1999; Holloman et al., 1996; MacLeod, 1995), used as status symbols to transcend the appearance of poverty. Whatever their implications for signaling where one stands socially and with what kind of people one naturally associates (Blumer, 1969), clothes have vibrant implications in the everyday interactional lives of high school aged youth.
So Trayvon Martin was only doing what many teenagers do as evidenced by this research.
Why does that matter?
It matters because of a behavioral principle called “observable cues”.
When a person faces a new or different situation, they seek to define it so that they can understand it. In many cases we can search for and find enough information for our brains to process it and place it in context for us to manage or understand. In the cases where there is simply not enough information, we look for these “observable cues” to help us define and understand.
A common example used as a teaching tool in business schools is the McDonald’s restaurant parking lot case.
McDonald’s managers are trained as a matter of process to keep the restaurant parking lots and store fronts clean, litter free and neat. Why would anyone care what the parking lots look like? Well, while the consumer can’t see into the restaurant as they drive by, they can see the parking lot. A clean parking lot becomes a proxy for the inside of the restaurant – a clean kitchen, clean restrooms and a clean eating area. The observable cue of a clean parking lot registers in the mind of the hungry driver that this is likely to be a clean place with safe food. The same goes for the opposite. If the outside is dirty, trash filled and unkempt, we extrapolate that the inside is likely to be the same.
These are generalizations to be sure – but that doesn’t make them wrong.
The same observable cues are applicable to humans.
The point being that if you dress like an ex-con or drug dealer (sagging pants and a hoodie pulled over your face), affect the walk, the talk, the attitude and personality of that class (aggressive and adoptive of the “street code”) and are present in a situation and environment (say a dimly lit street or a back alley in the inner city) that yields no other opportunity for informational search or context and no other definition, the observable cues will lead the observer to conclude that the individual is exactly what their outward appearance demonstrates them to be. That is to say that the context assigned will be the context observed.
Observable cues in ambiguous situations can also be very wrong. The most often quoted examples are how men are prone to misreading cues in situations of sexual attraction. Quoted from an abstract of a research report by Carin Perilloux, Judith A. Easton, and David M. Buss of the University of Texas at Austin is this:
Sexual interest must be inferred from observable cues, but the cues people use to estimate sexual interest may be ambiguous.
There are several reasons for such ambiguity: Direct signaling risks damage to the signaler’s mate value if he or she is rejected (Symons, 2005); explicit sexual signaling can hinder the signaler’s future mating success by fostering a reputation for sexual promiscuity; ambiguous signals can evoke additional courtship behavior and thereby lead to more accurate assessments of the target’s sexual interest; and evaluating the escalation or de-escalation of sexual signals allows people to recalibrate their own demonstrations of sexual interest.
Compared with women, men are more likely to overperceive sexual interest (e.g., Abbey, 1982; Farris, Treat, Viken, & McFall, 2008; Henningsen, Henningsen, & Valde, 2006; Maner et al., 2005).
So just like thinking that because a hot girl (or guy) looked at you at a party for a half a second longer than you expected means that she wants you or everybody wearing Mossy Oak camouflage shirts at the Super Wal-Mart in New Albany, Mississippi at noon on an November Saturday has been in a deer stand that morning, observational cues can be misleading – but they also can be correct – maybe she (he?) did want to have sex with you and it is a sure bet that at least some of those folks at the Super Wal-Mart were hunting that very morning. In truth, we all use observational cues – they are important because they are used to make decisions every day.
Does this mean that Trayvon Martin “deserved what he got”?
Absolutely not, no one deserves to be shot simply because of the way that they are dressed or look – but does this mean that George Zimmerman’s actions may have been influenced by the manner in which Martin was dressed or acted in that environment?
Yes it does.
That doesn’t make Zimmerman’s actions justifiable any more than it makes Martin responsible for his own death. What it does mean is that Zimmerman’s motivations could be based purely on the observable cues telling him that he was in danger from a threat and he was not prosecuting an act of racial homicide as many would have us believe. Trayvon’s hoodie could have been perceived as the urban camouflage it was, causing him to be perceived as part of a group that he didn’t belong to (just like the people at the Super Wal-Mart). Limited definitional information in a charged atmosphere is a recipe for disaster.
The American public, black and white, conservative and liberal, need to see the full evidence first before we all make decisions based on the limited observable cues we have at our disposal.
William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection has a similar take.