In the past month of March on Washington and “I Have A Dream” speech commemorations and Birmingham church bombing dedications, a series of images lamenting rap culture and “thug life” have made their way around the Internet. The one that has stuck with me the most has been the image of the Selma March in 1965 juxtaposed with seemingly random photos of young Black males with saggy pants. The caption reads, “When they took us seriously/Why they don’t now.” Really? White supremacists took respectable Negroes seriously in the ’60s because they marched and wore suits, but don’t take Black males seriously now because of the saggy pants phenomenon? The truth is, they did and didn’t take us seriously then and now, and it has almost nothing to do with pulling our pants up above our boxers.
I have to say, though, that I hate saggy pants. It makes the people wearing them look somewhere between goofballs and idiots. It’s never mattered to me whether White guys or Black guys or college guys or hip-hop divas have worn saggy pants. I didn’t like it when it became a style in the early ’90s, thanks in large measure to NWA and Tupac, TLC and Snoop Dog and a host of other hip-hop/rap artists. I certainly don’t like it now, and would never buy a pair for my ten-year-old son to wear that way. The saggy pants style has been a sad twist on hand-me-downs and poverty as marketable clothes for the hip-hop cool.
But the saggy pants style has never translated for me as embracing a “thug life” or some devolution of Black culture or American society. It wasn’t life imitating art, ala Boyz n the Hood (1991), Menace II Society (1993) or Clockers (1997). Nor have I ever seen it as something that meant that Whites or the new Black elite could say, “See. These Black folk don’t deserve respect, or health care, or a quality education, or good-paying jobs.” Over the past two decades, I’ve seen it as a style — a bad style, to be sure — but a style that some Blacks (and Whites, Latinos and Asians) have embraced.
Any young Black person who’s striving for higher education, or careers, or their own stereotypical success story in life, will tell you that they don’t wear saggy pants for every time or season. Even those who don’t know learn very quickly that saggy pants aren’t welcome in allegedly more respectable settings. If anything, the prevalence of saggy pants in 2013 has as much to do with the reality that opportunities for education, employment and prosperity remain so out of reach that it really doesn’t matter to many what they wear and where they wear it. There’s no need to code switch if everyone in your world knows the same exact code of cool.
Recent events have made it pretty obvious that it really doesn’t matter what Black males wear. We remain targets for deeply ingrained stereotypes, institutional racism, and pre-emptive White violence. Whether it was Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie in the rain, or John Lewis wearing a suit in Selma forty-eight years ago, it hasn’t mattered to Whites in fear of the Black boogie man. Florida A&M University graduate and former football player Jonathan Ferrell learned this deadly lesson in North Carolina just a week ago. It doesn’t matter what we wear, at least as far as many Whites and some Black elites are concerned.
Blacks all look the same to them, and looked the same to them in the ’60s. Suits, hoodies or baggy pants, we’re criminals and imbeciles from birth, thugs for life, and a drain on families and American society. This doesn’t mean that any one of us shouldn’t take responsibility for how we act, speak and look in public. I dare say, though, that structural economic issues like unemployment in deeply impoverished Black communities (or crank-infested White ones) won’t be solved with young folk pulling their pants up. We need to stop focusing on the insignificant, because saggy pants and respectability are the trees in this morphing forest of racism and economic inequality.