Donning slacks, shiny shoes, collard shirts and ties, the students from the African-American clubs at Champaign Central and Centennial High Schools in Illinois appear in a YouTube video looking like they're ready for their GQ Magazine close-up to the sounds of Justin Timberlake's song, "Suit and Tie." By presenting themselves in a much more 'put together' manner than your average young person, their intention with the video was to counter the "negative images of young African-American males in the media," according to their YouTube channel.
Title cards scroll across the screen that read, "We are not gangsters and thugs," "We are employees and volunteers," "We are scholars" and "We are athletes" to further convey their achievements in academics and leadership as well as the potential they have.
"We've gotten a bad rap for a long time people think that we're thugs or gangsters when in reality, we can be business men and scholars, and important people in the community," Hayden Hinton, a Central High School senior, told ABC affiliate WICD.
"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," said Central High School African-American Club advisors Tiffany Gholson and Barbara Cook on the YouTube page.
Though well-intentioned, the idea that dressing, behaving or speaking a certain way will mean society will see you differently, is nothing new. In fact, there's even a name for it: Respectability Politics.
Despite the good intentions by the students and their advisers, as Maurice Dolberry, an educator and writer wrote, "In short, they are an undefined yet understood set of ideas about how black people should live positively and how we should define black American culture. Ironically, they’re usually a huge hindrance to both."
While their white peers are allowed to wear hoodies and sneakers without being pegged as 'thugs' by society, these young men of color are expected to wear suits so they won't be seen as criminals. Of course it's great to see a young man in a suit, but how is it fair to put such pressure on a young person to do so to counter a narrative that existed well before they were born?
Sadly, there is significant evidence that suggest it doesn't work.
The harm in putting the pressure on these young men of color is that regardless of what they wear and all that they accomplish in life, outside of their community, they may still be seen as "dangerous" or "thuggish."
As writer-educator, Liz Dwyer wrote,
"Indeed, if we've learned anything from [Trayvon] 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."
Unfortunately, a music video just won't do it. The problem is systemic, so the solution is undoubtedly more complicated than a music video can solve. Hopefully these young men felt empowered making the video, celebrating their many accolades – and looking stylish while doing so. But, the responsibility of changing sociey's perceptions of these young men shouldn't fall on them. That is the job of a system that, according to Temple University professor, Laurence Steinberg, is failing them.