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 It seems somewhat disingenuous to suggest that if you attend a public school with out of date textbooks, overcrowded classrooms, and underpaid teachers, wearing your pants at the waist will somehow magically address the obstacles that make learning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.


  1. matt

    Is it not probable that both systemic, structural discrimination and deep seated cultural problems contribute to the problem? I would argue that a long history of systemic discrimination preceded by slavery has been the dominant force shaping a culture of poverty. Now, any pragmatic approach to increasing the lot of blacks in America must address both of these issues.

  2. Will

    Adia, fantastic piece. I think you addressed the issue head on and it should also be noted that the NBA recently instituted a similar dress code on its players when arriving and departing from games, which at the very least set a precedent.

  3. Adia

    Matt–its hard to make the argument that the culture of poverty explains minorities’ disadvantage when an abundance of empirical research discounts this explanation. Racial minorities, esp. African Americans, are often very culturally conservative and hold to the same values as those considered “mainstream” and necessary for social, economic, and political advancement. Despite this, structural, systemic biases serve to reproduce inequalities. Look for yourself–see Bonilla-Silva (2001), Royster (2003), or Shapiro (2004) for starters.

  4. Adia

    Will–thanks for your point. I didn’t know about the NBA code, but that definitely speaks to my larger point, especially considering how black athletes are often represented as adhering to hip hop culture in ways that “constrain” their potential and make them negative role models for others.

  5. Alston

    “Implicit in this issue seems to be a modern-day effort to criminalize hip-hop culture.”

    I don’t think that there are many efforts external to hip-hop that criminalize it; it too often criminalizes itself with its glorification of crime and other negative values.

  6. Seattle in Texas

    I think I can see where Matt is coming from and it makes sense and in the framework he set forth. I don’t deny there is/are culture(s) of poverty at all (with very deep roots that set the trajectories of the different groups both within and between)—to admit it is one thing, but to deny or blame is completely different. I would just like to add though to the thoughts above, that I don’t think very many really care about the poor kids or cultures until they somehow become influential on the youth representing the higher social classes. I think much of what makes the cultures of poverty so repulsive to the higher social classes is their deliberate acts of resistance and at times even vulgarity. And really, those acts don’t even mean anything until the middle class children find meaning in them and adopt them too (yet often fail miserably to understand, etc.) and then it threatens the status quo of the higher social class cultures, norms, and values…. But great piece—the public schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods need so much attention. And Alston, I have to disagree. Plus, many artists are being pimped out as far as I am concerned…very sad.

  7. Adia

    Alston–I would also point out that inasmuch as hip hop “criminalizes itself with its glorification of crime and other negative values,” there is danger in overgeneralizing mainstream, commercially propagated hip hop to represent hip hop culture at large. There is a wide, diverse variety of voices and themes within hip hop–openly gay Black men rappers, men and women feminist rappers, hip-pop rappers, etc. I think it’s too broad to say that “hip hop culture glorifes crime and other negative values,” because much of hip hop culture stands against these things. But the hip hop that is supported and disseminated by most corporate organizations seems to do only this. It might be worth asking why the other voices in hip hop–the ones that decry violence, question the status quo, and critique misogyny, racism, and exploitation–are silenced so that the voices you describe can be presented as “representative” of hip hop culture at large.

  8. matt

    I think those voices are silenced because they don’t conform to the disposable artist business model of radio rap music. Exceptionally talented artists with staying power make it from all genres of rap music (Common, Nas, Lil Wayne, NWA). Its the moderately talented artist who is silenced, because his only utility to the record company is his/her ability to make a hot single or two and then disappear. And the hot single is a lowest common denominator platform almost by definition.

  9. Adia

    Matt, I think to an extent what you say is true, but I believe corporations also selectively make choices to perpetuate certain images. There are great artists who are exceptionally talented but are marginalized likely b/c they don’t fit mainstream corporate images of who/what rappers “should” be. (Examples–Little Brother, J. Bully, Black Ice.) There are also some moderately talented artists who benefit from presenting an image mainstream corporations are comfortable marketing and promoting (L’il Kim, Snoop). For example, no matter how spectacular an openly gay Black man rapper is, he won’t get mainstream corporate support. I think this applies to many other very talented voices that don’t fit the image corporations feel comfortable promoting.

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