Banning Bagging Pants

Atlanta Public Schools recently decided to impose a ban on students who wear baggy pants. APS joins several other school systems and cities that have sought to prohibit this fashion.  In Atlanta, proponents of the ban argued that it applies only to openly “disrespectful attire that inhibits learning,” and that the ban will encourage students to learn the appropriate ways of dressing that will be beneficial to them on the job market. Opponents of the ban have argued that it seeks to target African American youth, who when dressing to conform to “hip hop culture” often wear low, saggy pants.

Much of this is generational–in the 1980s it was ripped jeans that caused consternation among parents and teachers, though not lawmakers. However, I wonder about the wisdom of criminalizing fashion, particularly when the accompanying image of the “baggy-pants wearer” is often a young Black man.  Given the overwhelming and disproportionate numbers of Black and brown men ensnared in the criminal justice system, it is cause for concern that the images linked to these stories are young Black men and not young white women wearing low-rise pants that expose thong underwear. (According to the wording of the ban, this type of fashion would also be prohibited.)

I think it’s also somewhat ironic that in a time when the economy is rapidly declining, public schools are woefully underfunded, and Black men in particular are continually underrepresented among college educated and professional workers, proponents of this ban seem to suggest that penalizing those who let their pants sag will prepare them for the workforce and help facilitate learning. It seems somewhat disingenuous to suggest that if you attend a public school with out of date textbooks, overcrowded classrooms, and underpaid teachers, wearing your pants at the waist will somehow magically address the obstacles that make learning difficult. While it is important for young people to know how to engage in self-presentation, it is also misleading and inaccurate to contend that self-presentation alone can or will overcome the structural barriers that marginalize (or in this case, criminalize) minority youth.

Yet perhaps this misrepresentation is exactly the goal. Implicit in this issue seems to be a modern-day effort to criminalize hip-hop culture. A “culture of poverty” argument has long been advanced as a way to explain why some groups remain poor over time.   This thesis claims that certain groups hold destructive values—anti-intellectualism, unwillingness to work–that mire them in poverty. Predictably, this claim is then applied to specific minority groups, usually African Americans and Latinos, as a way of theoretically sidestepping the well-documented structural issues that channel minority groups into poverty. With recent attacks on hip-hop culture like the attempt to ban baggy and saggy pants, the attention to certain aspects of hip hop in the wake of the Don Imus debacle, and attempts to posit the legal troubles of certain Black men celebrities as a consequence of their involvement with hip hop culture, it certainly seems that hip hop culture is the new culture of poverty. In this context, the effort to ban baggy pants takes on new resonance: it becomes part of a larger effort to emphasize the cultural traditions that are supposedly preventing racial minorities’ advancement. This implies that if only minorities can work hard enough and change those negative cultural values that keep them disadvantaged in the first place, they can achieve equality. It’s a misleading, erroneous message that obscures the reality that systemic, structural discrimination has more of an impact on inequality than anyone’s baggy or saggy pants.