Police in the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands recently announced a pilot program to target young men in designer clothes who, if they cannot provide proof they obtained their garb legally, will suffer its confiscation or even being stripped on the street. “We know they have clothes that are too expensive to wear with the money they get….big Rolex[es], Gucci jackets, all those kinds of clothes,” a police department spokesperson said. The department asserts it will be sending officers out into the streets “specifically trained to recognize people whose clothes don’t seem to match their purported income.”
Aside from the fact that Rotterdam police have not made clear what exact crime they are looking to decrease through this program, this plan to target young men through clothing is clearly full of racial profiling. While a young native Dutch man with white skin will likely not be presumed someone who can’t afford what he’s wearing, Dutch-born or foreign-born minorities (of Turkish, Surinamese, Antillean, Moroccan, or particular Latin American or Asian background) are more likely to be viewed with suspicion that they obtained luxury clothing and accessories through dishonest means.
The proposed program already has some critics in the Netherlands, but a 2016 poll found that the majority of Dutch people (64%) approved of police profiling by ethnicity and physical appearance while only 32 percent considered ethnic profiling a form of racism. This is perhaps because, as sociologist Melissa F. Weiner explains, many Dutch scholars, policymakers, and residents reject “race” as an applicable term in their society and thus reject the existence of racism. Instead, they prefer to use the term “ethnicity” which allows the categorization of people of diverse cultural backgrounds but eludes admittance of social hierarchies or realities of institutional discrimination.
Even if this is just a Rotterdam-focused program for now, this localized effort is contributing to a larger global problem of targeting, dehumanizing, and criminalizing poor minorities or other marginalized populations (immigrants, women) who try to consume certain commodities or become more visible in certain ways.
During the 1940s and 1950s, similar persecution happened in the U.S. and other places around the globe to people who wore the controversial “zoot suit,” an outfit consisting of a long and broad-shouldered “finger-tip” coat and billowing pants that tapered at the ankle, often accessorized with a long watch chain, hat, and duckbill haircut. (Women zooters often wore long coats, short skirts, and heavy lipstick). In the United States, the zoot suit was popular among Mexican Americans in the Southwest, Asian American and white youth in California, African Americans in Harlem and Detroit, Jews in Brooklyn, and Italians in Boston. In her book Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style, historian Kathy Peiss details the widespread global imitations of zoot suit culture which included French zazous, black South African tsotsis, Hungarian jampec, Polish bikiniarze, and Russian stiliagi.
At the time, many young people may have simply viewed the zoot suit as cool, sexy, and something that gave them swagger and helped them fit into youth and jazz/dance club culture. But during World War II, the U.S. and other governments (including Great Britain, Australia, and France) were rationing cloth and thus declared the conspicuous consumption of a suit with excessive fabric as a disrespectful and unpatriotic act.
Though Mexican American youth were not the only ones participating in zoot suit culture, they suffered a tremendous amount of police and vigilante violence in the U.S. Southwest. Latinos were already experiencing excessive police surveillance and brutality, in large part due to the persisting stereotype of the Mexican juvenile delinquent and gang member. The infamous Los Angeles “Zoot Suit Riots” of June 1943 consisted of a week of violence between young Mexican Americans and white servicemen who viewed them as gangsters, unpatriotic loafers, and sexual deviants. Servicemen prowled streets, bars, movie theaters, dance halls, restaurants, and even private homes with the aim of beating and stripping zooters. In many cases police didn’t interfere, waiting until afterwards to arrest the victims for “disturbing the peace” while taking only a handful of servicemen into custody. Even Mexican Americans who were not wearing zoot suits were attacked in the riots, while white zoot suiters who were not in mixed-race social groups weren’t targeted at all, which revealed the racism that lay at the riots’ core.
Elsewhere around the world, zooter youth were punished. Canada had its own period of zoot suit unrest in the summer of 1944. In France , Vichy authorities and youth organization members forcibly cut the long hair of zazous and rounded them up from cafes and cinemas and beat them in the street (sometimes sending them to work camps in the countryside). In Hungary, youth considered jampec, the Budapest imitation of the U.S. zoot suiter, came under severe government attack. In 1950s Russia, police officers publicly cut off the hair and clothes of Stilyagi.
In all these cases, young people who defied dominant notions of what they should look like and dress like provoked repressive and violent responses from authorities and their fellow citizens. Clothing has the ability to make people more visible in a society that tries in different ways to make them less visible. The discomfort that those with power and privilege feel when hierarchies are destabilized by people’s bodies and what they carry on them is what drives efforts at criminalization, punishment, and the literal unmaking and undoing of the non-conforming person and the look itself. By arguing they can just tell if someone is wearing clothes or accessories that don’t socioeconomically “fit” them, Rotterdam police are making assumptions steeped in stereotypes and planning punishment that lacks any legality. In short, this pilot program has too many historical precedents, and too many current holes in its rationale, to justify taking flight.
Lori A. Flores is Associate Professor of History at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and the author of the prize-winning book Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (Yale University Press, 2016). She also helps to host the New Books in Latino Studies podcast on the New Books Network. You can find her at www.loriaflores.com.