In recent weeks, a handful of businesses in Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene have put signs in their windows warning that anyone entering wearing a “hoodie or mask” will be considered a trespasser. The debate over whether this constitutes racial profiling or a reasonable crime deterrent has to do with the way we frame community issues like gang violence and robbery: either as an act perpetrated at a certain type of business, or one perpetrated by a certain type of person. The word “trespassing” is particularly charged with non-belonging and criminality, raising tensions in areas where these signs have appeared.
The signs, which DNA Info reports have appeared at “at least five” area businesses, read in full: “DO NOT ENTER WITH HOODIE OR MASK. IF SO YOU ARE NOW TRESPASSING.” Pictured on the sign are a drawing of a hooded person and one of a black ski mask. Proponents of the signs, which are produced by a man named Joe Stark and available for $10, have claimed everything from local teenagers to Halloween as their inspiration for putting the signs up. At least one had recently been robbed by a man who, because of his mask, was unable to be identified even using store surveillance. With a no-masks policy, robbers may be more easily identified, and masked figures who fail to comply with the no-masks policy will be presumed robbers.
There is a vast difference between a ski mask and a hoodie. A ski mask, except in the case of extreme winter weather (or skiing), is practically a robbery costume. A hoodie is a normal piece of clothing, one closely associated with racial bias following the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a young black man whose was wearing a hoodie when he became the subject of George Zimmerman’s suspicion. After Trayvon’s death, people across the country donned hoodies in solidarity, to protest the racial profiling of a black male wearing a relatively ordinary piece of clothing. And while it may be reasonable to argue in the context of this sign that a hoodie might be used to shield one’s face from a security camera, it’s impossible to divorce the hoodie from a culture and a history of racially biased presumption of guilt.
The second sentence on the “No hoodies” signs is also problematic post-Trayvon. Whether it’s quite possible to “trespass” in any business during its open hours may be up for debate, but the sign is not dissimilar to a “beware of dog” sign—one that states the situation, and makes no promises for the safety of the informed. Next to the image of a hoodie, the “trespass” language reminds of Florida’s (and other states’) now-infamous “Stand Your Ground” law, which weighs lives—usually the lives of people of color—against another person’s suspicions.
Thieves and robbers may, indeed, be dressed in masks or hoodies when they commit their crimes, in Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene and anywhere else. But most people wear hoodies at one time or another, particularly in cold weather. Banning certain articles of clothing—be they hoodies, masks, or hats—can institutionalize a coded racial bias, defended by vague claims of criminality. It is hard to imagine a white male in an Ivy League hoodie would be a presumed trespasser at the same rate as a male of any other race wearing the same sweatshirt. Presuming anything on the basis of a person’s appearance is a slippery slope, and one that moves us backward, not forward.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.