clothes

Screen shots from What Would You Do?

After presenting lots of statistics about racial disparities in criminal justice, I showed my class the videos from ABC News What Would You Do? in which first White and than Black youths vandalize a car in a public parking lot. There is only one 911 call on the White boys, but ten on the Black boys. Plus, while the White boys are vandalizing, someone calls 911 to report people who are suspected of planning a robbery — Black kids asleep in a nearby car! Well, most of the class, as expected, saw this the way I did, as evidence of a racial problem. I was trying to emphasize that not arresting Whites when they commit crimes is just as important in racial disparities as arresting Blacks. Some students pointed out (correctly) that it was a demonstration, not a controlled experiment and wondered (fairly) whether the producers selected cases for their strong differences. But a few very vocally insisted that the difference was not about race at all, but that the Black kids were wearing “gang clothing.” They got somewhat offended when I said, “yeah, Black styles” and then cut off that line of argument, saying “OK we disagree on that, but I don’t want to spend the rest of the class arguing about clothing.” 

Today I went back to the video and took screen shots of the kids. They are all wearing hooded sweatshirts and jeans, as I said. (One student had insisted that the White kids wore tucked in shirts! Not so.)  There are subtle differences in how they wear the clothes, though. The Black kids’ clothes are bigger on them (and the kids themselves appear to me to be smaller). The White kids’ shirts have words on them which I assume are school names (the resolution isn’t good enough for me to read them) while one Black kid has some sort of design on it that you could construe as edgy — it is definitely not preppy. One Black kid is wearing a cap which (as can be seen elsewhere in the video) is a gold weave thing that I cannot imagine a White kid wearing, but he’s wearing it in the same way as lots of White kids wear baseball caps. In my view the only difference between the clothing was subtle differences in style sensibilities between Blacks and Whites, and that calling the Black kids’ clothing “gang attire” is ridiculous. These few students think that if the Black kids had been in “non-gang” (i.e. “White”) clothing, the result would have been different. (They did not even suggest dressing the White kids in “gang” styles.) I think they are just exhibiting extreme resistance to the obvious. (The same students criticized me for failing to show examples of Black crime.) Opinions?

Edit: I decided also to include shots of the kid wearing the distinctively Black hat which also show that he is wearing a do-rang under it.  As far as I can tell, this is not gang attire. Do you think the dissident students are right that the do-rag and hat made the difference, not skin color?

Here are the links to the two videos:

Vandals 1 (white)
Vandals 2 (black)

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

13 thoughts on “clothes”

  1. Really, the only difference in the clothes is the race of the boys wearing them. That speaks to how they are viewing those clothes through a racial frame.

    I don’t know why this is, but traditionally there are two areas that I have a hard time convincing students of racial disparities: (1) media and (2) crime. I am wondering how many challenges I get on crime disparities come from crim students.

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  2. I remember watching the ABC News episode “True Colors” in a soc class in undergrad and it was one of the things that really made me want to be a sociologist (if I remember correctly, it was Diane Sawyer).

    Tina, I think that this is the link to the episode that OW was writing about. There is also another episode that documents real estate discrimination here.

    OW – did you show this to your students again after the fact to show them that the clothes are nearly the same. Or, I think that it would be interesting to get their explanation of how the clothes they are wearing are different. It might reveal the extent to which people will contort their explanations.

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  3. I think clothes might have made a difference on the margin (i.e. Nine calls for the black kids instead of ten or one call for the white kids instead of zero). Wearing the hoods up might have made a difference as well. Then again, the skater shoes worn by one of the white kids would signal “punk” to a lot of people.

    The students were showing a nice ability to look for subtle causal variables that people might miss, but they would be amiss to attribute more than a little bit of the outcome factors other than race.

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  4. I think it’s actually a conservative experiment for racial responses. The behavior is not stereotypically associated with Black versus White youth — it’s an odd thing, trashing a car in broad daylight in a busy park, not something people expect to see and type by race. And you can tell some of the passersby are confused. If the crime were more part of the racial landscape you might get a more biased response.

    The fact that the students thought the “gang” identification excused the racial disparity in response is funny. Why is that an excuse? The behavior is obviously criminal regardless of what they’re wearing. The gang-clothes reaction sounds like “symbolic racism” – I’m not racist, I just disapprove of people who collect welfare to buy crack and hang around on street corners with their pants hanging low.

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  5. Sociological Images ran this post and the comment thread over there generally goes with the “clothes matter” line.

    http://contexts.org/socimages/2010/03/25/guest-post-race-clothes-and-perceptions-of-criminality/

    Of course there is also the poster who makes the (valid) point that the TV show is looking for extreme reactions.

    In case you want to compare.

    In case anybody wonders, I think the “TV show set it up” hypothesis is a lot more viable than the “it’s all the clothes” hypothesis, but the fact that lots of arrest data support the race story to me says this is a demonstration of the race phenomenon. In real life, Black kids and White kids do have different clothing styles.

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  6. I showed the same clip in class last week! (Along with Census data on the demography of Ridgewood, NJ…). The students were appalled at the racism, but went with the ‘outsider’ argument. If only 1.6% of the town (and that neighborhood, specifically) is Black, then that’s what triggered the alarm about the kids sleeping in the car. Of course, the white kids were actors as well, but the students thought that the passersby would view them as more “familiar” (e.g., friends of kids from the neighborhood).

    My students also wanted to see a parallel video. How would Blacks in a predominantly Black neighborhood respond to White kids sleeping in a car…Clothing didn’t really come up as a variable.

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    1. The other class I showed this to also asked what would happen if the neighborhood were Black, which is a good sociological question, I thought.

      As regards “outsiders,” I made that the central point. Although I didn’t pull up Ridgewood NJ data, I did show a series of Census maps demonstrating the segregation of various cities and stressed that racial segregation is precisely what makes it possible to mark people as outsiders or insiders on the basis of race. I do think that policing the boundaries of “our neighborhood” is one big part of what the arrest and traffic stop data show.

      I also emphasized that NOT calling the police about the White kids and how the White kids were viewed is a really important part of the process.

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  7. If you are interested, the comment threads are quite different in the different places this has been posted. Here there is a “race” emphasis. On my
    own blog the comments debated clothes vs race. On
    Sociological Images the comments mostly get into a clothes debate, including a critique of visible underwear that is obviously irrelevant to this instance.
    (Here’s hoping I haven’t messed up the link html.)

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  8. Some more threads discussing this post:

    Stuff White People Do has a fantastic thread in which the main topic is how people of color are treated as potential criminals even when wearing business clothes and doing their best to be as non-threatening as possible, along with discussions of why they are afraid of whites but hide that from them.
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/03/see-potential-criminal-in-every-black.html?showComment=1270059823385

    Comments on Racialiscious mostly debate the “gang clothing” issue
    http://www.racialicious.com/2010/03/29/race-clothes-and-perceptions-of-criminality/

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  9. I agree that the race-coding of outsiderness factor is obvious and fighting it with more subtle indicators is symptomatic. And if race is the topic for the day I can see cutting the clothing discussion short. But there’s also a teaching moment there. At some point I’d be inclined to take up the students’ invitation to do a more comprehensive analysis of the layered codes in the event, to see how things like clothing, setting, body carriage, modes of culture/race/gender expression and so on coalesce with norm/deviance expectations to create effective racialized perceptions. If nothing else, the students’ observations are a fertile opportunity to analyze the study design in terms of variable control.

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