It's a good thing that Britney was at the MTV TRL show in London a year or so ago and not in Mansfield, Louisiana when she pranced across the stage with her pants slung low around her behind. If Spears had dared to show so much belly and behind flesh in the town on September 15 she would be fined $150 and tossed in the slammer for 15 days. But we all know that the screwy, harebrained law that the fashion censors in Mansfield and a handful of other Louisiana cities passed in recent years that mandate fines, community service, and now jail time for sagging pants wearers don't really apply to the male or female Britney's of the world. They apply to young black males. The laws are much more than a terribly wrong-headed effort to regulate public dress, decency, discipline, or moral values. They reinforce the worst media and publicly ingrained stereotype of young black males as drug dealers, drive-by shooters, gang bangers, and educational cripples.
Sagging pants are an easy and convenient symbol of the supposed dereliction and menace of young blacks. The consequence of that symbol and thinking has been devastating. Despite the plummet in crime rates, racial stereotypes have deeply embedded the popular and terrifying belief that crime in America comes exclusively with a young, black male face. The result: nearly one million blacks are now warehoused in America's jails, the majority of them young blacks, and a significant number of them are there for non-violent, petty drug crimes.
Sagging pants are such a soft and juicy target for the scapegoat of young black males that even comedian Bill Cosby couldn't resist taking a swipe at it and them in his now legendary tirade a couple of years ago against low-achieving, bad-behaving young blacks. He fingered sagging pants as proof to him that they had become a menace. Cosby later made a partial recant of his knock and explained that it was a call for action and not a broad brush stroke indictment of all young black males. But it was too little, too late. The sagging pants equals black male perversity notion was even more firmly imprinted in the public psyche
Though Cosby is one of the best-known blacks to fan negative racial stereotypes, he's hardly the only one. Despite much evidence to the contrary, many blacks routinely trash, demean and ridicule themselves. In fact, it was the African-American councilpersons in Shreveport, Mansfield and the other small towns that dredged up the ridiculous sagging pants laws. Some blacks in the rap and hip hop world, of course, are deeply complicit in fanning the stereotype. The rap moguls have reaped king's ransoms peddling their music video/cartoon version of the thug life. The rebellious young of all colors that shell out billions to enrich them are almost totally mindless of the social complexities, and the artistic and intellectual richness of the black experience. Even more tragic, some blacks further bolster the thug life stereotype by committing or winding up as victims of violence. The murders of rap icons Tupac Shakur, and Notorious BIG have been the stuff of cheap media sensationalism.
The spate of sagging pants laws does even more social damage than just reinforcing vile stereotypes and potentially swelling the jail population. It also confirms for many that the problems of poor blacks are self-made and insoluble. Many employers admit that they won't hire young blacks because they believe they are lazier, more crime prone, and educationally deficient. Many politicians, even without the excuse of ballooning state and federal budget deficits and cutbacks, mightily resist efforts to increase spending on job, health and education programs for the poor.
In Shreveport, where the sagging pants law passed by a narrow four to three vote, the opponents raised the standard arguments that the law infringes on personal and freedoms, probably violates free speech, free expression constitutional protections, and will overburden police and the courts by forcing them to waste valuable time and resources measuring the hem line on pants when they should be about the business of dealing with serious crimes. The opponents of the law though didn't raise any protest that the law won't provide jobs, skills training, fix failing schools, and provide greater mentoring and family support programs for young black males.
The sagging pants law has been the butt (pardon the pun) of jokes, and much ribald fun poking. But stereotypes and bad social policy are no laughing matter. The city fathers and mothers in Mansfield, and the other towns that foisted the law on their books should stop the craziness, realize that this law solves no problems, and wipe it off their books. That is before some other cities are tempted to follow their lead and make themselves look silly and pass this crazy law too. That is, unless they plan to arrest Britney for her bottom-dragging pants.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.