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Trayvon Martin case: Is young, black and wearing a hoodie a recipe for disaster?

John Minchillo / AP

New York City Council Member Jumaane D. Williams, of Brooklyn, speaks at a rally in New York for Trayvon Martin on Wednesday.

The fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a community crime-watch volunteer in a Florida suburb raises an uneasy question: Would he have been killed had he not been young, black and wearing a hoodie?

Most decidedly not, say some interested observers.

“This kid happened to have fallen into a wrong shade of black, and coupled with the fact that he was hooded made it more problematic,” said Jason J. Campbell, a blogger and an assistant professor of conflict resolution and philosophy at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.


“There’s a sense that this child was naive in the way he conducted himself (by wearing a hoodie). Unfortunately, African American males cannot conduct themselves in the same way that young white males can,” Campbell, who is black, told msnbc.com.

“It’s because society has said that a young black male dressed in this manner is up to no good,” Allie Braswell, CEO of the Central Florida Urban League, told msnbc.com. “Some of this is self-inflicted by dressing style, but it doesn’t mean every kid who puts a hoodie on is up to no good.”

Bill Lee, chief of police in Sanford, Florida, announces that he will be temporarily stepping down from his position as the investigation into the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is conducted.

Michael Skolnik, editor in chief of GlobalGrind.com, a site about the “hip” side of pop culture, wrote that he would never have met the same fate as Trayvon Martin, because he is white.  “Even if I have a black hoodie, a pair of jeans and white sneakers on ... in fact, that is what I wore yesterday ... I still will never look suspicious. No matter how much the hoodie covers my face or how baggy my jeans are, I will never look out of place to you,” he wrote. “I will never look suspicious to you, because of one thing and one thing only.  The color of my skin."

The now-ubiquitous garment was at the center of a "Million Hoodie March" in New York City on Wednesday. Hundreds of people, many cloaked in hoodies, marched to demand justice for the dead teen.

Hoodies, or hooded sweatshirts, have been around in the U.S. since the 1930s, first produced by Champion for laborers to wear in the freezing warehouses of New York.

Hip-hop artists popularized the hoodie as a rather sinister garment in the 1970s.

According to a 2006 article in The New York Times:

Goldie Taylor and Mark Thompson discuss the significance of their hoodies in showing solidarity for Trayvon Martin.

The sweatshirt hood can work much like a cobra hood, put up to intimidate others. But even more important is its ability to create a shroud of anonymity. This came in handy for at least two types of people operating in hip-hop’s urban breeding ground: graffiti writers and so-called stick-up kids, or muggers. Wearing a hoodie meant you were keeping a low profile, and perhaps up to something illegal.

By the 1990s, as hip-hop’s popularity spread, big-name clothing designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren included the hoodie as a primary component of their collections.

Campbell says black teens often wear hoodies for two reasons: to remain obscure and undetected, or to project a “don’t mess with me” image.

“The problem is, we as a society don’t have access to the motivations of the person wearing the hood,” Campbell says.

theGrio: Black youth react to the Trayvon Martin tragedy

Sanford, the Orlando suburb where the shooting took place, has a population of 53,000. It is 57 percent white and 30 percent black.

Trayvon Martin, who according to media reports stood 6-foot-3 and weighed a mere 140 pounds, may have not wanted to stand out, Campbell surmises.

Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post wrote an article on the dangers young African-American men face. Capehart shares some of the issues he faced growing up in New Jersey.

“It’s almost like the Harry Potter cloak – you think you put on a cloak and you disappear,” Campbell said.

“Young African American males in a public sphere almost exclusively want to be left alone.”

School tells kids: Dress in 'African American attire'

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, a child advocacy group, says black parents often have to have “the talk” with their sons about how to walk, what to say and how to act in public. She writes in in a Black Star News column titled “Trayvon: Murdered for walking while black”:

“At the time Trayvon was walking home from the nearby 7-11 carrying a bottle of Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles for his younger stepbrother, leaving many people to guess that the main thing he was doing that made him look 'no good' was wearing a hooded sweatshirt in the rain and walking while Black. George Zimmerman’s decisions made that suspicious enough to be a death sentence.”

Zimmerman, who told police he acted in self-defense, has not been arrested or charged. He was descrbed in the police report as white; his family says he is Hispanic. A grand jury will convene to look into the case.

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On Facebook, hundreds of msnbc.com followers weighed in on the issue.

“The fact is, young black men have created a stereotype, and until they break that stereotype by human behavior, you will be treated accordingly,” wrote Jerry Warren Sr. “Do I think that all blacks deserve that picture that has been painted of them? Of course not. But as long as a percentage of a population behaves like lawless animals, they will drag you down to their level. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and these wannabe gangsters are your weak link.”

“Have u ever been stopped, & searched by the police, because of what u had on? I didn't think so!! Its reality!!” wrote David E. Jones of Lumberton, N.C., who is black. “I've been detained & searched, because of what was wearing more times than I can remember!! If it’s just ‘a fashion,’ why is an innocent kid dead??"

Braswell, of the Central Florida Urban League, says he constantly worries about how his 16- and 20-year-old sons are perceived “based on the attire they choose to wear.”

“I tell them they need to dress to be able to be in any environment. While they do wear jeans and hooded sweatshirts, they do wear them in style that’s acceptable by a general population,” Braswell says.

“They tell me back that I should not be judged by clothing I wear, I should be judged by who I am.”

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