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Archive for Wednesday, January 17, 2001

A deadly fashion fixation

January 17, 2001

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— Dino Sawyer wasn't wearing designer clothes. His parents couldn't afford them. Besides, they felt that clean clothes were good enough. Dino agreed.

While visiting a friend in Arlington, Va., on Dec. 8, however, a group of boys began making disparaging remarks about his clothes. Dino, 18, asked them to stop, telling them they didn't know him well enough to make jokes about what he wore.

The boys became angry with Dino and attacked him with knives. They stabbed him repeatedly, puncturing a lung, and then slit open his stomach. Dino was hospitalized in intensive care for five days and barely survived.

All too often, we hear about black boys being killed for their designer clothes. But the near-fatal attack on Dino shows that even those who try to buck superficial fashion trends are also at risk.

So what is it with young black males and this perverse relationship to designer clothes? Why was 14-year-old Jerod L. Jackson robbed of his Avirex jacket on Dec. 22 and then, according to D.C. police, shot to death a few days later when he tried to get it back?

Remember all of the killings over Eddie Bauer coats during the 1990s?

It's as if we have raised a generation of boys who use clothes to cover up their shortcomings and insecurities, believing that a name brand on their backs, butts and feet will somehow make up for what's missing in their hearts and minds.

Dino knew better. A recent graduate of a Job Corps program who had skills as an auto mechanic, he was sending out resumes to area auto dealers. His plans called for investing his money, buying a house and someday raising a family.

Now a knifing has deferred those dreams.

"He wanted to save as much money as he could," said Cheryl Fleming, Dino's mother. "Buying clothes just wasn't something he focused on."

Black America has to be the only place in the world where that kind of thinking can almost get you killed. How did we allow our children to become brainwashed into believing that overpriced baggy pants and sneakers are cool, while being smart is not?

Could they have been watching us?

Black people buy almost 30 percent more clothes than the average American consumer, according to a 1997 study by the Boston-based Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, in association with the PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting firm.

Even inner-city blacks spend almost 11 percent more on clothing (including expensive shoes for toddlers who will outgrow them within a week) than the average U.S. household, according to the report.

We also spend more than anyone else on electronic products television sets, VCRs and CD players that kill the mind, plus more to fix our hair, which helps hide the atrophy underneath.

We use credit cards more often, which only gets us deeper in debt, and we tend to be loyal to any brand that plays on our need for recognition by featuring black people in ads especially the makers of alcoholic beverages.

It is a huge waste of financial resources.

Add to that recent reports showing that there are relatively few black honor roll students in most urban public high schools, and you have the makings of a culture of ignorance that thinks it's looking good even as it self-destructs.

Police say that on Dec. 28, 14-year-old Jerod was chased down and abducted at Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues in Southeast Washington. He was stripped of the coat he'd just retrieved, carried into some woods near his high school, where he was a freshman, severely beaten and executed.

What horrid symbolism: We honor black history by renaming streets, then sit back as the future goes down the drain.

Meanwhile, young men like Dino struggle not just to keep their heads on straight but also to keep from losing their lives.

When police asked Dino why he thought the boys had attacked him, he replied: "I don't need Tommy Hilfiger or Eddie Bauer or any of those clothes for me to know who I am. I know who I am. They don't know who they are."

They aren't the only ones.

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