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College Students Use Racial Profiling, Too—But Clothing Choices Minimize It

Most college students—both black and white—use clothing to judge whether another person may be a threat to them, according to an ABS survey of students at Atlanta colleges.

The ABS investigation revealed that 128 of the 150 students surveyed from Atlanta area colleges and universities—including Georgia State, Spelman, Morehouse, Valdosta, Clark-Atlanta and the Art Institute of Atlanta—openly admitted they often use clothing to judge strangers. Even more surprising, 107 of these students (black and white) said clothes that look threatening on a black person look acceptable on people of other races. In other words, a black male dressed in a hoody comes off as more threatening than an Asian or white male in the very same hoody.

Many of the young black males at the surveyed colleges and universities also shared with ABS that they often strategically decide what they will wear, when they will wear it, and where they will wear it in order to avoid being stereotyped by other races.

While Geraldo Rivera was thoroughly bashed for suggesting in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder that black males should stop wearing hoodies, the ABS investigation suggests that black males are already making such calculations on a daily basis.

The survey also brought forth some very surprising trends based on age: Black males ranging in age from 17 to 19 were more cautious of how other races might stereotype them than students over 20.

Javon Swint, 19, a freshman at the Art Institute of Atlanta, said that when he is likely to be in the public eye, he follows the latest fashion trend of blazers and khakis—not necessarily because he prefers that outfit to others, but simply because he doesn’t want to be seen as a “thug” or a criminal for wearing something threatening.

Earl Archibald, 22, a senior at Georgia State University, said he has noticed a substantial difference in how strangers approach him based on the way he is dressed. “I prefer more urban clothes, but if I wear something like a loose t-shirt and some jeans I can see people holding their bags tighter when I walk by or people just don’t seem as friendly. If I’m dressed how I am now [in a plaid button-up with khaki pants] people smile at me, they wave, they don’t seem afraid of me anymore,” Archibald said.

The ABS survey used a combination of open-ended and yes-or-no questions. The students at the six Atlanta colleges and universities were randomly selected, with no consideration to skin color, clothing, age, or any other factor that could have produced biased results. Of the 150 students surveyed, there were 113 blacks and 37 whites.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, racial profiling resurfaced as a major concern in many communities, and has served as a tragic reminder to the black community that when it comes to racial profiling, black people are usually the main target. Dennis Parker, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) racial justice project, reacted to some not-so-surprising statistics about racial profiling in a Department of Justice report back in 2007.

“The report found that blacks and Hispanics were roughly three times as likely to be searched during a traffic stop, blacks were twice as likely to be arrested, and blacks were nearly four times as likely to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with the police,” Parker said about the study that gathered information about racial profiling.

Dressing in a presentable fashion is important regardless of race, but the decision to dress a certain way may make a major difference in how a young African-American male is perceived and treated. When Trayvon Martin left his father’s home in a simple hoody, nobody expected his clothing decision to be a lethal one. The public couldn’t help but consider the fact that Trayvon’s attire was only threatening because of his skin color. It became apparent that deciding what to wear is a much more important decision for African-American males than it is for other races.

According to the results from the ABS survey, the younger group (from 17 to 19) expressed more anger and appeared more likely to hold a grudge against those who had profiled them. But they also expressed a greater desire to not want to be seen a certain way by another race, so they were more willing to dress in the newest fashion trends even if they personally didn’t prefer that style to a more urban look like baggy jeans and flashy jewelry.

The older students, however, who ranged in age from 20 to 23, seemed less concerned about what others thought. “I know who I am. I know I’m not a criminal or a thug. So I wear what I want to wear. I’m more concerned about looking presentable for a possible career opportunity, but I don’t take how other races see me into consideration when I get dressed,” Archibald said.

“It’s all about their development. When you’re young you feel as if you’re ‘finding yourself,’” said Erica Watts, a psychology major at Valdosta University. “You aren’t as secure in who you are. So if you’re still looking for your place in the world and the world has already given you one just because of race, you get angry. You’re also likely to be more impressionable.”

The latest trends in young men’s fashion are certainly stylish and appealing to the eye, but they may do more than just make a fashion statement. About three years ago, the fashion trends for young black males were large t-shirts with rap lyrics or large flashy jewelry and grills. Now the fashionable look is tailored and business casual, which includes bow ties, blazers, sports jackets, and loafers—a look that may help decrease racial profiling.

A group of local Atlanta designers, The Gentlemen’s Table, offers a collection that includes business casual clothing, in addition to basics such as hoodies and crew necks. With designers like these on the rise, African-American males are finding it easier to dress in a less threatening fashion. However, despite the decisions that black males find themselves making to counter perceptions, all the students agree that it is wrong for people—themselves included—to make assumptions about people based merely on clothing and the color of their skin.



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