CHICAGO – Nineteen-year-old Jonathan Knowles has an array of hoodies hanging in his dorm room closet, scattered among his suits, dress shirts and ties.
But the moment he walks out in a hoodie, he said, he is no longer just a Northwestern University engineering student. In the eyes of some, he is a threatening menace.
“There’s just a stigma that goes with wearing a hoodie, especially late at night,” said Knowles, a sophomore from Orlando, Fla. “I have no problem with someone being cautious, but it’s not right to associate every black male who is just minding his own business with being up to no good.”
The hooded sweatshirt has undergone an evolution in American culture since being developed by Champion in the 1930s.
In the beginning, the garment was primarily used by industrial workers in upstate New York. But in the last 40 years, the hoodie has become an icon of popular culture, ranging from a symbol of triumph when Rocky Balboa wore it in the movie “Rocky” to a statement of defiance when hip-hop groups such as N.W.A. and Public Enemy began wearing them in music videos.
And now, in the public uproar over the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin – a Florida youth who was wearing a hoodie when he was shot to death by a neighborhood watchman who thought he looked suspicious – the hooded sweatshirt has become for some a symbol of social injustice.
College students have been wearing them during campus protests, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., was kicked off the House floor on Wednesday for wearing one in Congress, ministers are wearing them in the pulpit and LeBron James and his Miami Heat basketball team posed for a picture in hoodies – all to show solidarity with Martin.
A message of unity
For Americans who are angry over Martin’s death and the initial decision by authorities not to charge George Zimmerman in the shooting, wearing a hoodie is a way to show a common bond with Martin and send a message that racial stereotyping is wrong, said Emmett Price, chairman of African-American studies at Northeastern University in Boston.
“We do this by donning the similar type of clothing he had on and putting ourselves in that scenario,” said Price. “There is an associative power here by folks of means and different class structure, saying, ‘We can identify with this because it could have been us, our son, our grandson, our nephew.’ ”
But some experts said placing the focus on hoodies threatens to take the emphasis away from the real issue – that a teenager may have been killed because of racial profiling.
“Hoodies are worn by all demographics; race, class, gender, age, region of the country, it doesn’t matter. So it’s not the hoodie, it’s the assumptions that people project onto the wearer of the hoodie that matters,” said Todd Boyd, a critical studies professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
“If Trayvon Martin had been wearing a suit and tie, would he still be alive?” said Boyd. “To even engage in such speculation aids the assumption that Trayvon Martin is somehow responsible for his own murder.”
Fox News Channel commentator Geraldo Rivera received a hailstorm of criticism recently when he suggested that the hoodie Martin was wearing was as much responsible for his death as Zimmerman. Rivera later apologized, saying he realized that he was wrong after having a conversation with his own 32-year-old son.
‘Not welcome here’
But the comments struck a nerve with many young men who see hoodies as a wardrobe staple. They, too, have been victims of the suspicious glares of passersby who clutch their purses tighter or cross the street to avoid contact. The message when they wear hoodies, they said, is “you’re not welcome here.”
“It’s like Trayvon wasn’t a person under the hoodie,” said D’Weston Haywood, 29, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern, where he participated in a rally Wednesday night.
In the age of hip-hop music and graphic music videos, hoodies, along with Timberland boots and Air Jordan shoes, became a sort of urban uniform adopted by gansta rappers and hip-hop artists, then emulated by other young people, according to experts on black culture. It becomes a problem, they said, when people make assumptions about the people who are wearing them.
“On one hand, you can identify hip-hop oriented young people as using hoodies to be mysterious. You couldn’t see their faces, and it created that allure and mystique,” said Price. “But that also happens in the rock music community and the athletic community. The challenge to society is not to minimize such things to one particular base.”
Some schools have tried to regulate the use of hoodies in an effort to curb gang involvement. In many Chicago schools, students are required to wear uniforms. In some suburban schools, hoodies are discouraged or allowed only under certain conditions.
Round Lake Area Schools District 116, for example, allows students to wear “hoodie-type garments” for school as long as they fit properly and the hood is down.
Plainfield School District 202 policy does not mention hoodies, but spokesman Tom Hernandez said the regulations are intentionally broad to allow for interpretation.
“No article of clothing is necessarily good or bad, it’s how it is worn,” Hernandez said. “Part of our job is to figure out what it means.”