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Wage war on stereotypes

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POSTED March 23, 2012 8:56 p.m.

As I walked the streets of New York the other day, I saw several white youths with hoodies, tattoos and nose rings. Not one time did it enter my mind that they could be skinheads.

While walking into the Howard University Hospital in Washington earlier that day, a few African-Americans rocked various types of hoodies. There wasn't a knot in my stomach; I didn't cross the street out of fear; and no, I didn't nervously look around for a cop or two.

As a native of Houston, I grew up in a black neighborhood. Went to a black church. Attended mostly black schools. I've seen every kind of black person possible. The drug dealer. The doctor. The bully. The letter carrier. The crack addict. The city councilman. And never have I walked in fear of black folks, who have given me no reason to be scared.

Oh, let's be clear; I've seen a group of menacing-looking black folks who scared the heck out of me. But I can say the same for whites, Hispanics and Asians.

What the Trayvon Martin murder should tell us is that the stereotypes that we have of people can have deadly consequences. For Martin, he was nothing more than a young man wearing athletic shoes, jeans and a hoodie. For George Zimmerman, that's the uniform of a suspicious person. And it was on the basis of that simple observation that Zimmerman followed him in his car, got out, accosted him and eventually gunned him down.

It has been amazing to listen to the reaction of some folks. But nothing got me more charged up than hearing Geraldo Rivera say on "Fox & Friends" that by wearing a hoodie, Martin contributed to his own death.

"When you see a kid walking down the street — particularly a dark-skinned kid like my son Cruz, who I constantly yelled at when he was going out wearing a damn hoodie or those pants around his ankles, 'Take that hood off!' — people look at you, and what's the instant identification? What's the instant association? It's those crime scene surveillance tapes," Rivera said.

"Every time you see someone sticking up a 7-Eleven, the kid's wearing a hoodie. Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it's a kid wearing a hoodie. You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a 'gangsta' — you're going to be a gangsta wannabe? Well, people are going to perceive you as a menace. That's what happens. It is an instant reflexive action."

He later added: "When you see a black or a Latino youngster — particularly on the street — you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid that confrontation. Trayvon Martin, you know, God bless him, he was an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hand. He didn't deserve to die. But I'll bet you money, if he didn't have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn't have responded in that violent and aggressive way."

Rivera might have thought he was well-meaning, but that's just nonsense. It wasn't Trayvon's hoodie that led to his death; it was the skin color. It was what was going through Zimmerman's mind when he saw the kid. We do a disservice to ourselves when we try to explain away such nonsense.

In a show of solidarity, all of the members of the Miami Heat basketball team took a photo wearing the team's hoodies, with their hands stuffed in their pockets.

The problem today is that minorities, especially black men, have long had to make accommodations for the negative view others have of us. See, it doesn't matter about our degrees. Our fine, tailored suits don't matter. We've made all of the accommodations to fit into this society. We've cut our hair. We are careful about the clothes we wear. We change how we talk so as not to sound threatening. We're fine, upstanding citizens. Yet we still are seen as suspicious. And as in the case of Trayvon Martin, we can end up dead.

This, folks, is war. This is war on racism. This is war on bigotry. This is war on stereotypes. This is a call to arms. This is time for the soldiers in the battle for social justice to stand up and say, "I report for duty, sir."

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