I've been seriously conflicted for the past few weeks. There have been a host of "Million Hoodie Marches" from New York to California in support of Trayvon Martin. Many on Facebook, twitter and other social media have joined in by taking and displaying pictures of themselves in hoodies in solidarity. The “hoodie movement”, as some have called it, is a statement about how unreasonable it is to connect the garment Martin wore the night he was murdered with the reason for his death, as if hoodies are universal signs for threatening behavior and Black criminality. I stand with the masses who think the association between clothing and behavior is wrongheaded at best and dangerous at worst. Yet, I wonder if Trayvon was identified as being "suspicious" because he was sagging his pants would people start, “Sagging for Trayvon”? As the nation dons their hoods to say clothing is not criminal, is there a chance we can further pursue justice and drop the criminalization and condemnation of sagging pants?
Questioning the sartorial choices of young Black folks has always been en vogue, but of late it has been taken to epic and even legislative proportions. Throughout the United States sagging pants have been taken as an affront to decency. The sagging of pants is often parroted as coming from “prison culture” (despite there being no concrete evidence of this) and more recently has been alleged is a signal of one’s sexuality (another equally non-evidence based claim).
In cities across the US, wearing pants beneath one’s hip has gone beyond being perceived as distasteful, it is increasing being criminalized. In numerous cities one can be fined or even arrested for sagging pants. While I must admit my preference is not to sag pants, I do realize making it illegal sets up a dangerous precedence for our community. For years now, many of us have supported the movement to “pull up your pants” but have not looked at how the judgment and condemnation that we visit on Black youth, be it hoodies or sagging pants, is directly linked to racist stereotypes and harmful to our community and the pursuit of justice.
Much of the commentary on sagging pants is rooted in the “politics of respectability.” Scholar Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham argued that advocacy for justice and equal rights among Black folks was often based on whether Black leaders considered those who had been wronged to be “proper” and “respectable” Negroes. This emphasis on respectability often meant conforming to White middle class norms and being refined in one’s dress, speech, and behavior. Leaders often lined up behind those who were most likely to meet the standard of White approval so that civil rights could be pursued. Sadly, these politics of respectability still cloud our activism, advocacy, and community life today.
As news outlets go on a witch-hunt for pictures of Trayvon looking “thugged out”, they are hoping to argue one’s dress reflects one’s character and worth. Nothing could be further from the truth. A tailored suit does not mean innocence, nor do sagging pants or a hoodie mean guilt. Justice is not just for those who live angelic lives and dress in socially conservative ways, it is equally for those who have been muddied by the world’s injustices and dress as they prefer.
As the world dons hoodies and stresses that clothing is not character, I wonder are we equally willing to realize that as young folks sag their pants it is a choice, not an attempt to be criminal, nor should it be criminalized. Youth are not recreating prison culture, nor signaling their sexuality, or even looking to get harassed by police. Instead, they’re making choices about what they like, speaking back to a mainstream society that often rejects them, and ultimately expressing themselves as all young people have done. Whether zoot suits or sweat suits, dress is not a reason for someone to be harmed nor it is a reason for someone to be condemned. We must assure that our movement for justice is for all, not just those who we think are respectable.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on twitter at @dumilewis or on the web at www.professorlewis.com