When grandmothers see young men with sagging pants, there’s a reflex action to tell the boys to pull them up. That’s what happened this week when the CBS Evening News ran a segment on a 77-year-old African-American grandmother in Milwaukee, a former corrections officer, who spends her days and nights scouring the neighborhood for young men who are up to no good and politely encouraging law-abiding behavior.
The CBS editors made sure that her remarks about sagging pants didn’t end up on the cutting-room floor. You know, down where the sagging pants are.
As a menswear journalist, blogger and general sartorial observer, the sagging pants issue certainly piques my curiosity from a sociological as well as sartorial standpoint. Is there morality in the way we dress? From sumptuary laws to Thomas Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus,” it would certainly seem so.
But sagging pants on inner-city black youth is a particularly contentious issue. Before his fall from grace into the mires of criminal hypocrisy, Bill Cosby was one of the most public black critics of young men wearing their pants below their gluteous maximuses. He took heat for it from other blacks, and the debate continues today in the age of victim-blaming. A couple years ago CNN host Don Lemon spoke about sagging pants, and was immediately countered by Keith Boykin of BET. And in the wake of Spike Lee’s new movie “Chi-Raq,” Chance The Rapper accused him of “Bill Cosby pull your pants up stuff.”
Ours is an era of Black Lives Matter, of the fight against systemic white racism, and it’s not currently acceptable to criticize young black men for their behavior (including their rap lyrics). Many schools have bans on sagging pants, but whenever a new school instigates the band, there are cries of racism and the suppression of black expression. One could argue that it is the duty of schools to prepare young people for the job market, and that encouraging them to keep their pants up between the hours of 8 and 3 is reasonable and in their best interest.
As for the Milwaukee grandma, she’s invoking the quaint notion of unwritten modes, manners and mores that hold society together without direct bureaucratic enforcement. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the generation that put on their Sunday best to march in the Civil Rights Movement finds it distressing to see young men dressed in a way in that marks them as essentially unfit to participate in mainstream society (which includes a job in their own neighborhood). It’s also no surprise that someone from her generation sees a relationship between the flagrant defiance of decency and delinquent behavior — what you might call sartorial morality.
Social critics say the keys to avoiding poverty are pretty basic: graduate from high school, get a job, don’t have kids before you’re married. That’s about it. Pulling up your pants may not be required, but it certainly can’t hurt.