Sociological Confessions

March 20, 2010


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 to add shots of the kid with the most distinctively Black hat. In these shots you can see that he’s also wearing a do-rag.  Just to be fair. I can find no evidence that this is “gang attire.” But it is certainly distinctively Black. Do you think it’s the do-rag and not the skin color that matters here?


  1. Radical Discrimination is crime for societieal well being and it should be avioded at any cost. any thing like this is just going back to those stone age where there was no harmony between people.

    Comment by Rajeev Upadhyay — March 26, 2010 @ 5:44 am | Reply

  2. It not good to listen such things. we should teache our children about equality and non discirimination.

    Comment by The Money Paradise — March 26, 2010 @ 5:45 am | Reply

  3. I don’t think you can separate race and clothing in this example. Your question, “is it the do-rag or the skin color that matters” presumes that a viewer (of the video, or of the actual event) could meaningfully separate these coded signifiers in her mind. I don’t think that’s possible. Would the do-rag read differently on the white kids? Perhaps. But to the degree that it would make the white kids more threatening, it’s because it’s associated with race and crime in a particular way, right?

    Anyway, my point is (and I think it’s yours as well, until your last question) that the clothing and race are already inextricably linked. The clothing has no inherent meaning, of course. But the racism that is most pervasive now isn’t explicitly about skin color — our society has learned (at least to some degree) that that’s not acceptable. Instead, we use coded language and visual cues as a proxy for race.

    On a side note, I wonder: if they’d added just one black kid to the white group, would folks have been more likely to call in than when all the kids were white? And how would those callers have identified the race of the perpetrators?

    Comment by Amanda — March 27, 2010 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  4. Amanda: You are right, I do think race and clothes are intertwined and inextricable. The genuine differences in the clothes are very subtle, but people are treating them as huge because it is a marker of a significant social difference.
    You should check out the comments where this was posted at Sociological Images: where the posters are really sure it is all about clothes. By contrast, the sociologists who commented on Scatterplot are sure it is race. The meanings different “communities” are reading into this is kind of interesting in itself.

    Comment by olderwoman — March 27, 2010 @ 10:46 am | Reply

  5. […] Note from Lisa, editor of Sociological Images: We are pleased to featured a Guest Post from a blogger at Sociological Confessions. Our anonymous blogger is a Sociology professor who teaches courses on race relations and does public sociology work on racial disparities in criminal justice. In this post, she poses a question based on an interaction with students who questioned her interpretation of an incident as racial. […]

    Pingback by Race, Clothes, and Perceptions of Criminality | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture — March 29, 2010 @ 8:01 am | Reply

  6. More comments threads on this.

    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.

    Comments on Racialiscious mostly debate the “gang clothing” issue

    Comment by olderwoman — March 31, 2010 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  7. I just stumbled across this blog and it is fantastic! I also write about teaching sociology (although – full disclosure – I’m an anthropologist) in my blog, and I teach Multiculturalism.

    Anyway… I agree with others that the clothing signals “criminal” not necessarily because of its potential “gang” origins, but because it has been connected in our minds to black people. DANGEROUS black people. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. For example: I (secretly) think all black people are criminals. Therefore, I decide that clothing associated with black people is criminal clothing. Therefore, I am justified in suspecting the black people and NOT the white people because the black people are wearing criminal clothing. Therefore, I am clearly not a racist. Obviously.

    Comment by Lady Instructor — April 5, 2010 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

  8. Lady Instructor: Thanks for the kudos. I’m blogging erratically these days but periodically something hits my fancy.

    Comment by olderwoman — April 5, 2010 @ 10:58 pm | Reply

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