Why Black Men are Wearing Prison Jumpsuits in Chinatown

Courtesy of Aaron Ginoza

An employee of the National Museum of Crime & Punishment hands out coupons to pedestrians in Chinatown.

Pedestrians in Chinatown are inundated with advertising and gimmicks, from free burritos to digital billboards. And joining the marketing blitz on a recent sweltering Saturday afternoon was a group of young black men handing out coupons — wearing orange prison jumpsuits.

They were employees of the National Museum of Crime & Punishment. Some passersby politely took the coupons; most ignored or avoided them. But given the stereotypes associated with black men and crime, others took offense at the sight of black men being hired to wear the jumpsuits.

“It’s got kind of a rough edge to it,” said Wes Brown of D.C., who first saw the men last year. He said they’re dressed “like criminals” and “people see them and probably think that.”

“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Brown, who is black, said.

Some walking by don’t make the connection until asked. On Saturday, Zkia White walked by the coupon distributors without noticing them, but when asked if it was a good idea for museum employees to wear the jumpsuits, she responded: “hell no.”

“They should know better. They shouldn’t be doing this,” White said. “But they’ll do whatever gets ticket sales.”

Others have taken notice of this questionable practice. And some may remember that this museum got some heat in February for a Valentine’s Day promotion that linked romance to “crimes of passion.” The exhibit featured domestic violence cases.

Employees have worn the outfits for three years. Although most of those handing out coupons in Chinatown were black men, all employees are required to wear prison jumpsuits when they engage in promotional activities, community activities or sales calls, wrote Janine Vaccarello, the museum’s chief operating officer, in an email to DCentric.

Courtesy of National Museum of Crime & Punishment

Two museum employees wearing orange prison jumpsuits speak to an attendee at an expo. Museum employees wear the outfits during promotional activities and community outreach events.

“We did not discriminate on race, religion nor sex [when hiring]. So we have a mix of everyone,” she writes.

The museum hosted an open house to hire street team members, and most of the applicants happened to have been African-American men, Vaccarello writes.

Vaccarello writes that the museum has received “a few” complaints about the jumpsuits, “but we have more positive feedback by a landslide.  Most tourists love it and ask to pose in pictures with them.”

Some do see the advertising as harmless. Joan, a tourist from California who declined to give her last name, said, “I see it as another promotion and maybe a way for them to get ticket sales.”

A white family from Northern Illinois walked past one museum employee on Saturday. He handed a coupon to teenager Anna Green.
Her grandmother, Jan True, thought the employees were prisoners: “I didn’t even see the fliers.”

Green thought so, too – until she saw the fliers. Her younger sister said she was “scared” when she saw them.

Sonya Grier, an American University marketing professor who also studies race and sociology, said although a company has a right to have such a campaign, but “some people may consider it unethical, insensitive or just in bad taste.”

Such campaigns work by relying on associations already in people’s minds — in this case, orange jumpsuits have a strong connection to jails, and thus, crime and punishment, Grier said. “At a theoretical level, it’s basic marketing.”

But social context has an influence on the way such campaigns are perceived, leading to “some unintended consequences” — particularly since there’s been quite a bit of research showing many people believe black men are more likely to commit crimes, she added. Marketing can reinforce that stereotype.

“One of the main ways we learn about society and life in general is through the media,” Grier said. In this case “it’s not an ad. It’s real life people, and I think that takes it up a notch,” she added.

Elahe Izadi

A museum employee hands out coupons near the Chinatown Metro Station on Saturday.

Vaccarello defended the museum’s uniforms: “We definitely are an organization that is active in our community and we do not want to offend anyone. But this is our uniform and has been since opening. Our employees like it, tourists like it, and many local businesses like it,” she writes.

Indeed, one group that isn’t complaining is the museum employees themselves, according to Vaccarello. She writes, “We listen to our team — and they like wearing them.” (DCentric asked permission to interview some employees and is awaiting a response).

She recounts one time in which a few employees tried an experiment: would there be a difference in sales if they wore red museum T-shirts instead of the jumpsuits?

Vaccarello concludes: “Their sales dramatically decreased — proving that what they wear matters.”

  • Guest

    This article is interesting to me because of an observation I made during a visit to the Crime and Punishment Museum. I was exceptionally disappointed to see that a museum about crime and punishment failed to include any exhibits or information about how wider social injustice and racial prejudices are reflected in the justice system. In light of that, this marketing strategy makes me wonder if the museum’s directors know anything about criminal justice aside from the oversimplified cops vs robbers schtick and if the museum’s chronic failure to understand and inform the public of wider social issues related to crime and punishment are a disservice to the public.

  • http://twitter.com/ninjaclectic aaron ginoza

    I was somewhat amazed to read about the Illinois folk who thought the museum employees were actual criminals…but the more I think about it, maybe I shouldn’t have been.

    I believe the museum’s logo is only visible from back…so  if you didn’t end up behind them or taking a museum coupon, you’d totally be trying to decipher the situation based on what you have already seen/experienced  – which is most likely only prison dudes wearing prison clothes.

    Curious…did the museum offer other photos of employees in orange jumpsuits besides the two white women?

    Other photos are excellent btw ;)

  • Lisa Marie Czop

    @Aaron, as the media representative for the museum, I can assure you that we did offer the author of the article several photos depicting various races and genders wearing the uniform.

  • Guest

    Those are not jumpsuits.  Those are surgical scrubs that happend to be orange in color.

  • Anonymous

    “people believe black men are more likely to commit crimes”
       People do not just “believe” that, every government statistic proves it to be true, even excluding for drug related charges.

  • Washingtonian#1

    What’s next, will the museum revert to the demeaning and discusting out dated racist act of “BACK FACE” and reinstate it also.  History will reveal that the “District of Columbia” itself sold slaves in this very say area of downtown!!!

    Sad so sad – would a museum in Israel, have german employees wear “NAZI” uniforms???  I think not, however, the feelings of African Americans are still bombarded with the racist and hurtful reminders of slave master mentality.

  • Kbush6902

    To be completely honest- this is a waste of energy on everyone’s part- Main reason being, OUR ECONOMY is shot to dirt right now and instead of you all praising the fact that there are people willing to work to make a living and not become a statistic, you all are focusing on the inevitable. There are plenty things to worry about in America besides the constant mindset of racial exploitation. Racism becomes an issue because you all make it an issue where it’s not intended.

    It’s unfortunate that statistics prove that our prisons are overrun by African-American males, but just like Hooters and their marketing tactics where females must have a certain image (which is a stereotype majority of our young womenhave issues with now) seems to be working great for their franchise.

    Or how about our daily commercials which show all types of racial stereotypes and statistics, or how different races are always portrayed in certain ways.

    Racism is something that will always be in the back of our minds because of history. But we have come a long way from where we were, and we can’t go back. Today is all about the bottom line- WHAT CAN I DO TO MAKE MORE MONEY.

    Marketing is not an intentional racism ploy- things are catchy, things are funny and people tend to gravitate towards anything eye catching without racism or stereotypes being the first thing to come to mind.

    And besides you all are speaking about these African-American men as if they don’t have a mind of there own. Have you all spoken with any of these men and asked them how they feel????

    Stop making mountains out of mole hills, and until you’ve been a slave, a felon, or a statistic, I suggest you take the high road and keep it moving.

  • Jumpy

    Maybe it is a good thing.  OMG it is a criminal!  Wait a minute, they work for the Crime Museum.  That makes sense, duh!  Me and my silly stereotypes.  I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. 

  • Enlighten

    Anyone who actually thinks that a real criminal that is in jail is working on the street passing out coupons deserves to be scared.  MORONS!

  • Hotmamma

    A rack of people are in jail for weed.  They said that more black men get arrested for weed than white men even though usage amongst the races is the same.  If we legalized weed, I wonder how many people would be out of jail.  Yes, you go to jail for weed.  That is just ridiculous.  I hope all these people complaining about these jump suits are doing everything in their power to help as many inner city kids as possible.  Probably not.  I used to tutor at Bald Eagle Rec, and with all the ads for help, there was nobody helping.   I love how people talk about the plight and hardships of black people and yes, there are hardships, and do nothing.  They blog and complain about stupid orange jumps suits that people wear who work at the CRIME MUSEUM and it says that people of other races wear them with pictures to prove it.  So maybe the Museum should only hire white people to wear them.  That would go over really well. 

  • Thegeneralstoreinc

    Thanks for bringing this to light. It doesn’t matter if they are scrubs.  When you first see them you’re not dissecting whether their “uniforms” are a one piece or a set. The orange color alone sends the message.  It’s sad because people were literally dodging them and not taking their promo materials.  Sad because they were doing what they were supposed to do. Maybe they could of just worn the shirts and different bottom. Also was the skully on the one gentleman a requirement? 

  • Joe

    And here I was thinking that it was giving black men an image of being friendly, hard-working people. Thanks Elahe for explaining the true meaning of this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Perry-Redd/100000109848779 Perry Redd

    This is sickening…and exploitative.  I’ve been monitoring NPR for eight months now, and it’s not ironic how NPR can find the most degrading of stories to cover about Blacks in this city–and consistent too!  The Black people the Crime and Punishment museum used, of course, need work and have no inkling of the legacy of prisons and those who profit off of them–even in this venue.  I vistised that sorry museum with my grandson to warn him of how human beings in American can allow themselves to be slaves to money (i.e., capitalism). DCentric is the tool of DC’s gentry and a sorry excuse for opening race relations.  Thank you for sharing.

  • Conscious9676

    At its worse, this gimmick is racist; at its best it shows cultural INcompetence on management’s behalf. Frankly, DCentric is the race-baiting arm of WAMU, whose raison d’etre is to keep the cauldron of racial tension simmering.

  • EconHead

    Wrong. Black men are more likely than whites to be pursued, arrested, tried, convicted, and receive prison sentences, for the same offenses.  To rely on statistics requires an objective interpretation of said statistics.

  • Robertryan51

    What is the fascinating of us being exploit in these odd attractions,as if it’s our culture.So we are suppose to display “what,the glory or gory of crime.Yes it’s really bogus,Because everyday we have copycat crime makers,whether it’s murder,rape or robbery.The reality of it all,we see and hear the real deal everyday.I’am curious,as to how up to date their attraction or theme of such an “crime to display this undocumented side show.Also,It would probably be better to put people out there posing as “judges,policemen or lawyers,than glorifying prisoners for doing crime.What a stupid marketing plan.fire that thoughtless person,let them do carnivals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andi-Banks/100000885840369 Andi Banks

    The crime is the “genius” who came up with the idea in the first place.

  • Nonotmiketoo

    Remember, the guy selling weed to your kid from his right hand will be selling him rocks and blows from his left.

  • Nonotmiketoo

    Remember, the guy selling weed to your kid from his right hand will be selling him rocks and blows from his left.