The Semiotics Of Dress: Republican Targets "Illegals" By Their ClothesS

In his 1974-1975 lectures at the College de France collected in the volume Abnormal, Michel Foucault discusses the creation of new technologies in modern "criminal justice" that categorize individuals who "resemble their crime before they commit it."

He's specifically inquiring into the emergence of criminal psychiatry, but as we know so well, sartorial-racial profiling has become another such "rational" method of categorization (based on interpretations of signs as "symptoms") and criminalization. (See sagging pants on young black men, turbans on "Muslim-looking" men — even if they are Sikhs — and some forms of hijab on Muslim women in Canada and France, for the most relevant contemporary examples.) Now, in the midst of a hostile anti-immigrant movement, Representative Bill Bilbray (R-Calif) claims that "trained professionals," presumably experts in scientific methods of observation and evaluation, will be able to identify "illegals" by their clothes. As the Huffington Post reports:

Discussing Arizona's pending profiling bill on "Hardball," Chris Matthews challenged Bilbray to cite a "non-ethnic aspect" by which law enforcement agents could identify illegal immigrants. "They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there is different type of attire, there is different type of — right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes," Bilbray replied.

Arizona's draconian new immigration law has now legislated what has been an informal policy of racial surveillance, what we might call "being public while brown." SB1070 makes it a state misdemeanor to lack immigration documents (and more, to fail to carry such paperwork at all times) and compels police officers to determine immigration status if they form a "reasonable suspicion" that a person is in the U.S. illegally. Those who cannot immediately prove their legal residency may be arrested. (For more analysis of the law and its implications, see the Immigration Law Professors Blog, which dubs the law "The Latino Racial Profiling Act of 2010," the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and the National Immigration Law Center.) A New York Times editorial observes, "Opponents say it verges on a police state, which sounds overblown until you read it."

Rep. Bilbray's efforts to deflect from the state's racisms by locating the "trained" apprehension of "illegality" on clothes, on behaviors — rather than skin — do not constitute any sort of departure from race discourses that target the body as a continuous surface of legible information about pathology, capacity, and so forth. The cognition of race has never been a simple matter of skin or bones. Especially for racialized others, their clothes are often epidermalized — that is, they are understood as contiguous with the body that wears them, a sort of second skin, as we see with hijab or turbans. The normalization and regulation of dress codes as pathways for racialized others to achieve liberal selfhood and signal cultural competency (another example being the sartorial disdain encapsulated in the declaration "You look like a FOB (fresh off the boat)!") are absolutely integral to racial taxonomies and their histories.

Watch the video, if you have the stomach for it. Then wash out the bad taste in your mouth with the Colbert Report segment on the new immigration law.

This post originally appeared on the blog Threadbared. Republished with permission.

The author of this post can be contacted at threadbared.75@gmail.com

Want to see your post here? Email us.