Psst! Black Teens Shouldn't Have to Wear a Suit to Prove They're Not Thugs

Seeing them dressed up is nice, but these guys shouldn't have to convince us.
Mar 18, 2014·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

If they're dressed in suits and ties, will society see black males as worthy of respect? That's the question raised by "Suit and Tie in the 217," a video made by a group of black male high school juniors and seniors at Central and Centennial high schools in Champaign, Ill.

"When people see a black person, they don't really think he can be smart," senior Feli Keti told ABC affiliate WICD. So the teens made the video to show the world that they're not just "thugs" or the stereotypes seen in hip-hop videos and television shows like Cops. Instead, these young men are successful scholars, volunteers, athletes, and employees in the community.

The video, whose title is a combination of Justin Timberlake's hit song "Suit and Tie" and their area code, shows the young men decked out in dress slacks, dress shirts, regular ties, and fancy bow ties. And they do look great. After all, unless it's a special occasion, you don't typically see teenage boys of any race or ethnicity ditching jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies for formal attire.

Tiffany Gholson, a social worker at Central High School and the school's African American Club adviser, worked with the teens on the video. Gholson says it serves as an empowering counternarrative: "The negative stories told daily in the media and in our culture about our young African-American men tend to ignore their successes and don't tell the full story about how young black men are becoming leaders within our community schools."

That said, in a post–Trayvon Martin era we shouldn't encourage black males to pander to respectability politics. Wearing a suit and tie instead of a hoodie won't keep these youths from getting shot by the George Zimmermans of the world or help them be seen as smart.

Indeed, if we've learned anything from Martin's murder, the Jordan Davis case, or the Twitter feed that tweets all of New York City's stop-and-frisk incidents, it's that changing a black man's clothing won't make America less racist. A black man in a business suit can still be seen as "suspicious," or as not the "right cultural fit" for a job.

As nice as it is to see these young men looking sharp, they shouldn't have to prove anything. Their clothing isn't the problem. What is, is that they had to make this video at all.