Beltlines Below the Buttocks
Lawmakers don't spend all their time considering budgets and tax hikes. Sometimes they have other matters to regulate, like whether a guy's pants hang too low.
Towns from Connecticut to Virginia have tried to ban saggy pants – you know the ones that droop down around the hips, threatening to slide off completely. In one town in Louisiana, the style can earn you a $500 fine or even six months in the clink.
Chicagoan Nikki Patin thinks it's a silly law and that there's much more attached to it than mandating modesty.
I actually burst out laughing when I first heard of legislation being planned in Connecticut to outlaw the popular hip-hop trend.
Then I thought about how one of the reasons often stated by our government for the U.S. going to war with Iraq was to free people, especially women, from the shackles of dictatorial oppression. I often hear Americans comment on how awful it is for women to have to cover their faces and bodies and how horrible it is to have the government control how you express yourself.
But I'm realizing, as more and more baggy pants legislation pops up in other states that class is at the heart of this issue.
Class is not often discussed in the Black community or in America, in general. The class divide is often over-shadowed by race, homophobia, sexism or plain, old-fashioned prejudice.
Within the Black community, class is what keeps many of us divided. Many Black people spend a lot of time distancing themselves from being perceived as “ghetto” or “poor”. Conversely, many poor Black people revel in those labels, as a way to retain some dignity and pride, a semblance of identity in a world that's largely unaware of and unconcerned with their existence.
And so maybe in taking away the freedom to dress the way they want, they are being identified by legislators through the labels placed on baggy pants…thuggish, criminal and distasteful to Black politicians who want the image of the Black community conservatively defined.
Proponents of the laws claim that baggy pants are indecent because underwear can be seen.
Of course, baggy clothing being perceived as a threat to society is nothing new. In the 30's, another popular trend among “urban youth” – zoot suits – were also outlawed. Back then, zoot suits were called “unpatriotic”.
But the modern-day baggy pants trend has its roots in the prison system. Inmates' clothes often come without belts and are often oversized. Unfortunately, hip-hop culture derives some of its fashion sense from prison culture.
Of course, there's a backlash in the Black community about baggy pants and hip-hop gear, in particular. For the middle-aged and middle-class Black community, it's all about being “grown and sexy”, which is a more tailored, expensive look, featuring expensive suits and designer dresses.
I think it's all about classism and internalized racism. Both young hip-hoppers and urbane professionals are striving to spend top-dollar on trends, while Black politicians ignore devastating literacy rates in poor Black communities across the country in favor of focusing on limiting freedom for its youngest constituents.
I wonder what effect this baggy pants legislation will have on struggling students, when they're hassled by cops after school because of their fashion choices.
For centuries, Black people have been struggling for freedom tirelessly. We've marched, we've sung, we've bled, we've cried. We have created change and changed laws to uphold the same freedom for Black people that is promised to every American.
The young Black men targeted by baggy pants legislation are American, by blood and by right.
If their freedom can be limited, what about yours?
Nikki Patin is a writer, performer, educator and activist living in Chicago.