I should begin in full disclosure by letting y’all know that when I read Dana Kelley’s bizarre column in the Democrat-Gazette yesterday, I was wearing a hoodie. And I’m wearing a hoodie as I type this. Reason: it’s chilly! Hoodies are comfortable. I wear hoodies all the time.
Dana Kelley thinks that hoodies are a symbol of violence, and this is equivalent to the symbolism inherent in the Confederate battle flag. Or something. It’s no easy task to parse such a bitterly confused diatribe. But let’s soldier on, shall we?
Kelley seems a bit bummed that “many people of the politically liberal persuasion” believe that “regardless of what historical merit or significance a Confederate battle flag might hold, they often argue that it is often viewed as a symbol of slavery, and that’s reason enough for polite people not to display it.”
I’m not sure what “historical merit” means. Here is the history: What is now commonly known as the “Confederate flag” was one of the battle flags used by a treasonous army of men who seceded from the union so that they might continue unfettered the enslavement of black people. In case you often wonder why people “often argue that it is often viewed as a symbol of slavery,” that’s the reason: The men fighting a war against the United States of America under that flag were fighting to preserve white supremacy and slavery. Don’t take my word for it! Here’s Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Or, from the Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery— the greatest material interest of the world.”
I invite you to read more from the Confederacy and how they came to fight under that flag (Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic has covered this ground at length many times). Then, to continue our history, the particular Confederate battle flag we now call the “Confederate flag” became newly popular in the 20th century among neo-Confederate, white supremacist terrorists. It became a symbol of protest against integration, and once again became a sort of “battle flag” — though this time flown by small groups of murderous terrorists and guerrilla fighters. The enemy was black people.
So that’s why some people (not just liberals!) are “sensitive” about folks displaying the Confederate battle flag. The problem runs a bit deeper than being impolite.
Likewise, to Kelley’s other example, yes, “some American Indians” are “sensitive” about sports teams using racist and derogatory nicknames in the country where they were subjected to near genocide. Indeed, “[n]o matter how rich the legacy belonging to an Indian athletic mascot or team name.”
But don’t worry, Kelley is feeling charitable: “Even when I disagree with their position, I do understand and support their compassionate approach—as long as it works both ways, which it usually doesn’t.”
Here is the moment we’ve been waiting for: the worst analogy ever penned. According to Kelley, armed robbers often wear hoodies. Therefore, hoodies are “the uniform of choice for armed thugs and a ubiquitous symbol of crime” and “[t]hat’s reason enough to stigmatize hoodies and publicly shame” people who wear hoodies. Presumably even me! Kelley thinks this is analogous to Confederate flags and racist nicknames.
I hardly know where to begin. Of course, the immediate thought that comes to mind is that all of those robbers he mentions have something else in common: they all had guns! This, to me, seems like a more plausible “ubiquitous symbol of crime” and indeed more likely to bring back bad memories for crime victims than a hooded sweatshirt. My guess is that Kelley does not think gun ownership should be publicly shamed, though. It’s also the case that all of the robbers were wearing pants. In fact, though like Kelley I have no stats or research to back this up, I would suspect that pants-wearing is even more common than hoodies among robbers.
Oddly, while Kelley believes that the hoodie is inseparable from the armed robberies of convenience stores, the object of his scorn is U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, who wore a hoodie during a speech at the House of Representatives and stated, after the death of Trayvon Martin, “Just because someone wears a hoodie, does not make them a hoodlum.” (A little bonus tedium — Kelley wastes a bit of column space fussily correcting Rush’s grammar for some reason; here we get a glimpse of something that must happen to Kelley all the time: he attempts to embarrass others, only to embarrass himself.) Kelley’s claim is that people who rob convenience stores at gunpoint often wear hoodies. Trayvon Martin was not robbing a convenience store with a gun. He was walking in his neighborhood, unarmed, wearing a hoodie, when he was shot and killed. One reaction to this might be to question the wisdom of immediately demonizing someone who happens to be wearing a hoodie. After all, literally millions of innocent people who are not criminals wear hoodies every day. Curiously, Kelley’s solution is instead that we should shame hoodie-wearers.
Like I said, I personally wear hoodies all the time. I have never, ever, ever seen anyone offended by me wearing what Kelley alleges is an offensive symbol of the murder of convenience-store employees. That’s because hoodies are no such thing. Only a columnist desperate to make a point, only to lose the thread of the point a few paragraphs in, would make such an obviously absurd claim. By contrast, some people I grew up with liked to wave or display Confederate flags at parties. You’ll never believe this, but this made the black people I grew up with want to leave the parties, because they felt unwelcome. The reason they felt unwelcome — or unsafe, or angry, or offended — was that the Confederate flag has a well-documented history as a symbol of a white supremacist ideology so deeply rooted that it inspired violence and treason. So, yeah. That’s one difference between the Confederate flag and a hoodie.
Kelley’s point is that a tiny subset of people use a completely neutral object — a hooded sweathshirt — and do bad stuff. Might that be different in kind from the historical battle flag of pro-slavery factions which made war with the United States and terrorized black Americans? Might that be different in kind from derogatory slurs and acting out offensive stereotypes?
Recently I was in a coffeeshop, and the air conditioning was cold, and I put on my hoodie. Same thing happened to me in a museum. No one even noticed. Imagine if instead I pulled out a Confederate flag in the coffee shop. Or called a Native American person at the museum a “redskin” and started mimicking ugly stereotypes.
Or, hey, imagine I was at a football game. If I waved a Confederate flag or did the Tomahawk chop, I run the risk of offending others because those are symbols loaded with meaning. Their origin — the reason they are offensive — is part of a history that I can choose to confront or choose to ignore. “Heritage, not hate” sounds an awful lot like blinders to a hateful heritage.
Meanwhile, if I put a hoodie on at a football game, the symbolism is clear indeed: I’m keeping warm.