The Boxer Rebels
Wednesday, September 26, 2007.
By Keith Boykin
One day last summer I was walking home from the gym in Harlem when I noticed a young shirtless man walking slowly in front of me. He was walking with the familiar side-to-side swagger of young men in hip hop as I followed far behind.
By the time I approached him, I realized the reason he was walking so slowly. His pants were sagging so far down that the full length of his boxer shorts were exposed. He must have heard my footsteps as I approached from behind because he turned around just as I got closer. He scowled a look that could kill, pulled up his pants and then stood on the edge of the sidewalk until I walked by.
What was that all about? If you're going to walk around half naked in the streets, don't get offended when people stare at you like you're crazy. And as much as I appreciate the right of all people to dress the way they want, I have to be honest. I certainly would not want my kids to dress like thugs, and I'm glad that my two teenage godsons don't.
I once had a prospective intern (who I later hired) who dressed this way to his job interview with me, and I had to warn him that he would never get a job in most places dressed like a thug. But having said all that, I am still troubled by the new trend, reported recently in The New York Times, of cities that are outlawing sagging pants.
Since June of this year, sagging pants have been against the law in Delcambre, Louisiana, a small town of 2,231 that is 80 miles from Baton Rouge. The fine for violators is as much as $500 or up to a six-month sentence. A new law in Mansfield, another small Louisiana town, will fine violators as much as $150 or up to 15 days in jail. And they're not alone. Other cities and states are considering laws to ban sagging pants as well.
As much as I hate this sartorial style, I cannot support a law that sends young people to jail just because of what they wear. And let's be truthful. The people who will be going to jail will mostly be young black and Latino men, the very people who are already overcrowding the nation's penal system, many of them for petty and harmless offenses.
Nor does it matter to me that some of the officials sponsoring these laws are black themselves. Older, well established black people can be some of the most socially conservative people around. And this issue, no matter how much I dislike it, is not the biggest threat to black America. But try telling that to Atlanta Councilman C. T. Martin, who recently sponsored an amendment to the city’s indecency laws to ban sagging pants, which he called an epidemic.
Martin describes the problem as a vestige of the "prison mentality" in the community, and that may be true. Some experts argue that urban youth started the trend to mimic the style of dress of inmates who are not allowed to wear belts because they can be used for weapons.
Others, like Larry Harris, a 28-year-old musician from Miami, deny that prison style inspire their fashion choices. Standing in Times Square with "oversize gear," Harris told the New York Times, “I think what you have here is people who don’t understand the language of hip-hop."
I don't always agree with Benjamin Chavis, but I do agree with what he told the Times about this trend. “The focus should be on cleaning up the social conditions that the sagging pants comes out of,” he said. "That they wear their pants the way they do is a statement of the reality that they’re struggling with on a day-to-day basis."
I think he's right. I see this trend everyday in Harlem. I don't like it, but I don't want to criminalize it either. This is really an issue for parents, families and the community to resolve. It's not for the police to settle.
Keith Boykin is a writer, broadcaster, journalist and political commentator. He blogs at www.Keithboykin.com
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