Friday, March 30, 2012

It aint about hoodies; it's about fear, and guns and the vigilante impulse, and race, and, well... hoodies

It’s not about hoodies.

And, it's not about race. But, then, everything in American society boils down to race eventually. Race is just a fact of life in a former slave state. Period. So, it is about race, but maybe not as much as people would have you believe.

Where hoodies are associated with race, you might say the Treyvon Martin killing is about the fact that he was a black teenager and black teenagers are associated with hoodies. But I wear sweatshirts with hoods, always have. Of course, when I was 17 I would never have admitted to wearing any article of clothing with ‘ie’ at the end. I did, then, and do, now, wear sweatshirts with hoods. Sometimes they are black sweatshirts with hoods.

It would be naive not to realize people sometimes wear hoodies to stick up liquor stores and Churches Fried Chicken.

And, when you’re all down inside your hoodie, you are intimidating. Why else would you be down inside a hoodie when the temperature is 80 degrees? Of course, the temperature wasn't 80 degrees in Florida Feb. 26. It was raining lightly.

But teenagers do wear their hoodies in 80-degree weather. They wear their hoodies to my classes even when I'm sweating through my shirt. Why? Because it’s cool. Teenagers have always worn what was cool, no matter the temperature. When I was in college it was cool not to wear socks with Converse All Stars, especially if your Cons were red. I wore Converse All Stars with no socks through snow drifts on my daily trek to class . Maybe some of the older faculty members were intimidated by my Cons but more likely they were amused.

So, it is cool to be hot inside your hoodie. You shouldn’t have to pay with your life.

Some of the students have asked me what I think about the Treyvon Martin disaster. What I think is it isn’t about hoodies and it isn’t particularly about race – though race will be found at the bottom of it.

It’s about differences in how people define things. One man’s neighborhood watcher is another man’s vigilante. This is really about guns and who should be in possession of deadly force.

Police officers go through rigorous training with guns. They learn how to make their guns the absolute last resort. They learn a sort of reverence for life that they may not actually be willing to admit. They know what it is like to be on the wrong end of a gun. They know, in many cases, what happens when they fire their guns. They have no John Wayne, Clint Eastwood illusions about death.

They see it all the time.

And yet they still make mistakes. Terrible mistakes.

If anyone should be packing in our neighborhoods, it should be the cops. It shouldn’t be self-appointed protectors. It shouldn’t be the neighborhood watch. It shouldn’t be vigilantes. The NRA does not agree, but in my world only the cops would have guns.

And, the neighborhood watch folks would be limited to turning me in for my lack of landscaping expertise.

The NRA is a powerful force in American society. If the American Cancer Society were as powerful, you wouldn’t be able to buy a cigarette without traveling to Canada or Mexico. Guns and fear don’t mix, and the NRA is a perfect storm of both.

Just as the terrible evening of Feb. 26th was a perfect storm of guns and fear in a gated Florida community.

Let’s take guns first. The constitution guarantees the right to possess weapons. It did not, of course, anticipate the introduction of machine guns into the domestic arsenal, but it did protect the right to keep a gun. In the midst of a revolution – a violent revolution – such a protection is easy to appreciate. Perhaps it is as applicable today as it was then – you could certainly hear a few passionate arguments for its modern applicability anywhere you asked the question. My thinking about this was instructed by how the Black Panthers in the 1960s turned the issue around displaying their weaponry in public, which they claimed to need to protect themselves from white policemen. They were strong Second Amendment supporters, make no mistake.

But, as I tell my ethics students… everything that is legal is not ethical and everything ethical may not be legal. While it is legal to possess a gun, legal in some places to strap it to your belt or jam it into the back of your pants, and, in places like Florida, legal to use it to stand your ground, the question of whether it is ethical – or, logical, for god's sake – is not answered by the Constitution.

It has to be answered by the people who leave their homes armed, just the way a driver of a two-ton automobile has to answer the question of whether he should take another drink before he heads out on the road. If he doesn’t drink, alcohol won’t be the reason he kills someone with his car. If he isn’t armed, his gun won’t be the reason he takes someone’s life.

Now to fear. Immediately the gun advocate has pounced on my argument with the glib defense of self defense. He will be unpersuaded if I say I will do anything in my power to defend myself or my children – they are often the core of the gun advocate’s argument – short of using an instrument of instant death that I refused to pack for my trip to the store. They will be similarly unpersuaded by my argument that the risk of taking another person’s one and only life by accident, in haste, in anger or in fear, is greater than I can ethically endure.

Just as drinking and driving is a risk I am unwilling to take.

Why are people in our time so afraid they take such ethical risks? Let me put it another way: Why are they so fearful they are willing to spend the rest of their lives looking in the mirror knowing they murdered an innocent person?

To some extent, the news media reifies their fears, just through the normal course of reporting events. Some of this is unavoidable in a free society. But, the fact that what bleeds leads is avoidable. I’ve been working on a little study about the Kansas City Star Web page. My guess is if you could find someone who experiences the world only through the Star's Web page you would find a person demonstrably more fearful of their community and their world than someone who never looks at it.

Politicians have used fear to drum up support from the beginning of time and modern America is no exception. This is a reasonably sophisticated society linguistically and they have latched onto a variety of words and phrases which stand in code for fear and for who to fear. The very election of a black man to the presidency sent these codes into orbit, launched fear through the roof. Some of those among us want to celebrate a post-racial society. I'm not among them. People are still possessed by fears they can’t, or won’t, name – beginning with the idea of a black man in the White House – and my guess is those fears are translating into more guns and more stand your ground laws, reified by the daily news and the plethora of crime shows on television – which might as well be news for some people – and what people know of rap music… whew!

Yep, I just made the case, didn’t I? It’s not about hoodies; it’s about fear. But, once again I am forced to admit that fear is about race. And, since hoodies are about race in 2012… well, I'm back where I didn't want to be.

Well, I'm left only certain of this: It’s deeper. It’s just a lot deeper than a hoodie. And a young man has paid for it with his life.

--Lofflin… not afraid to be confused…


  1. Thank you for this post.

  2. "The NRA does not agree, but in my world only the cops would have guns."

    As a brother of a police officer I get into this argument all the time; I couldn't agree with you more.