The Florida legislature passed a bill last week that bans saggy pants in school, allowing for suspension or other punishment for public school students who show their underwear or “butt crack.” The sponsors of the bill — state Senator Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) and state Rep. Hazelle Rogers (D-Lauderdale Lakes) — are black. The legislation awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.
In the same breath, the state’s lawmakers also passed a bill banning bestiality, or sexual relations between human and animals. With fiscal crises, unemployment and other problems facing the states, these hardly seem like pressing issues, certainly not serious enough to warrant a law.
In any case, let’s stick with the saggy pants law for now.
An extreme step for something so trivial, so harmless, this is not the first attempt by Floridians to hike up the pants. For example, in 2008, voters in Riviera Beach, Florida approved a saggy pants measure which imposed a penalty of $150 or community service for first-time offenders, and jail time for habitual offenders. A judge found the law unconstitutional after a teen was forced to spend a night in jail. Last year, the city of Opa-Locka, Florida imposed a $250 fine and community service for those who don’t pull up their pants in public.
And Florida is not alone. Last month, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe beat Florida to the punch by signing a bill that bans students from wearing clothes that expose “underwear, buttocks or the breast of a female.” Proponents believe the law will improve the learning environment and stem the violence caused by student competition over clothing styles. A similar effort in Tennessee failed in a state house subcommittee in April, a second attempt in as many years.
The town of Delcambre, Louisiana passed an indecent exposure ordinance in 2007 that prohibited the showing of one’s underwear. In Hahira, Georgia, the city council passed a law prohibiting people from wearing pants below the belt and revealing skin or underwear.
Last year a Bronx man was issued a summons by a police officer for disorderly conduct, and wearing “his pants down below his buttocks exposing underwear [and] potentially showing private parts.”
According to Judge Ruben Franco, who threw out the summons, “The issuance of this summons appears to be an attempt by one police officer to show his displeasure with a particular style of dress,” adding that “While most of us may consider it distasteful, and indeed foolish, to wear one’s pants so low as to expose the underwear…people can dress as they please, wear anything, so long as they do not offend public order and decency.” The judge ruled that the cop overstepped his bounds, and that for the conduct in question to rise to the level of disorderly conduct, it must be “public in nature and must cause inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm to a substantial segment of the public.”
And last month a Latino high school student in a suburb of Wichita, Kansas accused school officers of hitting him with a Taser and breaking his arm after he refused to pull up his pants.
These prohibitions sound like Victorian-era cross-dressing laws of the 1800s and early 1900s, which prohibited women from wearing pants and required that they wear dresses. Don’t get me wrong, if I put on my Bill Cosby hat, I can think of a number of reasons why someone would choose not to wear their pants below their waist. The practice is associated with prison and gang culture, as inmates are not issued belts to prevent suicide attempts.
It could make you look unprofessional, and render you unemployable by many places of business. In addition, it makes walking a challenge, and others have even pointed to potential health effects and the impact on one’s posture. Eric Adams, a New York State Senator, initiated a campaign with billboards reading “Raise your pants, raise your image!” The former police captain believes that young people will benefit from the style change. “You can raise your level of respect if you raise your pants,” said Adams. “When you raise your pants, you raise your character. When you raise your pants, you raise your grades, self-esteem and how you feel about yourself,” he added.
Similarly, the city of Dallas started a “Pull Your Pants Up” campaign in 2007. And when he ran for president, then-Senator Obama called saggy pants crackdowns a “waste of time,” while also suggesting that “brothers should pull up their pants.” “Some people might not want to see your underwear. I’m one of them,” Obama told MTV.
But do we really need a law for this?
“Those that participate in these ridiculous and counterproductive culture wars are always out of touch with what’s cool and current,” said Giovanni “G. la Belles-Lettre” Turner, Soul Model Recording artist and University of Miami professor. Turner, who is also a Miami resident, views the Florida legislation as both an attack on hip-hop and a distraction.
“The authors of this bill clearly have not seen a hip-hop or neosoul music video or visited a Miami, Tampa, or Orlando high school in at least decade. If they did, they would know sagging pants fell out of fashion a long time ago,” he added. “So while this is an obvious assault on hip-hop culture and African-American culture, and I am offended, it is, nevertheless, a moot point. I am more offended that they are wasting our time and tax dollars debating such foolishness instead of figuring out a way to accept billions of dollars in federal stimulus for a high speed rail.”
Civil liberties groups say the Florida-style laws are a First Amendment issue. The government should not serve as the fashion police, they say, and that makes a whole lot of sense. People, including young people, should be allowed to make their own decisions, and maintain their own sense of identity and self-expression. And we should err on the side of freedom and creativity and against the edicts of an arbitrary, reactionary and heavy-handed government anytime. Plus, where do we draw the line? What about that proverbial slippery slope? If a state or a city can criminalize low-hanging jeans, what is next, a ban on religious or cultural garb? Or African braids? What about coiffing while black?
Just to get to the heart of the matter, some black folks say that such laws amount to racial profiling, pure and simple. These laws, they suggest, are really a proxy for racial bias. Organizations such as the NAACP claim the bill is an example of the school-to-prison pipeline, and would increase dropout rates for black males.
To be sure, black and Latino youth are an easy target, as they are already the prime targets of America’s criminal justice system. More of them are in prison today than were in chains back in the days of slavery. Often shunned by society, scapegoated, and neglected, they are the fodder, the raw materials, if you will, for a prison-industrial-complex. Young men of color are associated with the practice of wearing saggy pants, and so this law is for them.
It smacks of the days of Jim Crow, when African-Americans were singled out for their so-celled “lawless behavior.” The Black Codes were enacted in the South to control the freed blacks through an unjust legal system, with crimes specifically invented for blacks, such as “vagrancy,” “mischief,” “insulting gestures,” “cruel treatment to animals,” and the “vending of spiritous or intoxicating liquors.” Criminalizing blacks for these phony crimes and compelling them do hard time, the Jim Crow laws stripped them of their voting rights, on purpose, in order to stop black political power dead in its tracks.
Not surprisingly, the anti-sagging laws come at a time when young people — particularly poor children and children of color — are increasingly criminalized. School is not a welcoming or nurturing place for many young people. And at its worst, with guards, bars and metal detectors, school can resemble a prison. Zero tolerance policies punish children for the mildest of infractions. And while there are no jobs for them, there is plenty of room in the penitentiary.
Meanwhile, although Gov. Scott hasn’t signed the bill into law, there is an indication of where he may be headed. In March, he reinstated a Reconstruction-era law that restricts the voting rights of ex-felons. That law was originally designed to disenfranchise black voters. The state’s prison population is disproportionately black — blacks are 15 percent of Florida’s population but half of all prisoners — in a state with an incarceration rate 25 percent higher than the national average. As of 2006, 13 percent of black Floridians were stripped of their voting rights. This, as Florida lawmakers, who have received generous contributions from prison contractors, are ready to hand over as many as 14 state prisons to private enterprise.
This is all about so much more than droopy drawers.