The ongoing public dispute and controversy about “sagging pants” sells newspapers, magazines, records, public service announcements, advertisement, and concerts. This “fashion trend,” those who sag, their reasons for doing so, and those opposed to it play right into strategies to divide people, the need for some to be different, to argue, and to be in opposition to an “other”. This is the nature of any controversy. However, when lines are drawn, those on opposite sides will see either a liberal or a conservative conspiracy, there are victims, and people are hurt in different ways. That sagging is thought to be an “urban” phenomenon, clear evidence shows that people of color are most likely to be the victims of this fad and those that are more likely to be hurt because of this controversy. Where and when did it all start?
In our search for answers, staff at Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc. found various views and opinions worthy of note. Barbara Mikkleson reports that sagging began in prison and “worked its way from the hoosegow (jail) into hip hop culture” where it was popularized by artist such as Ice-T, Too-Short, and Kriss Kross.[i] Todd A. Smith writes about Eazy E sagging as far back as 1988.[ii] Abhijit Naik suggests, as do others, that sagging was never meant to be a fashion trend. This form of dress resulted from prison authorities banning belts and shoelaces in jails and prisons because of the belief that they could be used as weapons or as instruments used in the commission of suicide.[iii] In her “Sagging Pants: Hip Hop Trend or Prison Trend?,” Shamontiel reported that “If the pants are below a man’s bottom, it is to introduce to other men that he is homosexual.”[iv] A less popular view is that sagging originated during slavery. According to Jim Stillman[v],
“Some white masters would rape their African male slaves; subsequently, the victims were forced to wear their pants sagging so that their masters could identify them for future attacks. (D)ehumanized black slaves wearing sagging pants were said to be announcing that they were available for their white masters. Over time, the style became a little-talked-about subculture that seeped into general black culture.”
Solid evidence about when and where sagging began remains elusive, but the impact of this social phenomena is just beginning to be felt. There are reports that sagging has been outlawed in “12 states. If caught wearing baggy pants in these states, you may be subjected to a $500 fine and even jail time.”[vi] No matter one’s opinion about sagging pants, Matt Kelley says that laws against them “target an urban population and one that includes a large number of African-Americans. (These new laws) tend to criminalize (sagging and) increase contact between police and inner-city youth. Laws like (these) start the cycle that sucks too many people into (the) criminal justice system.” [vii] It is in this regard that people of color are hurt the most. Marc Lamont Hill informs us that in, “states like Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida, politicians have taken the anti-sagging movement to the next level by passing laws that criminalize the fashion trend by creating public decency ordinances.”[viii] In New York, State Senators Eric Adams, Malcolm Smith, and Bill Perkins have voiced concerns about the wearing of sagging pants. In a March 2010 post on his Senate Webpage, Senator Adams writes that “This sagging pants culture represents an immature disregard for the basic civility, courtesy, and responsibility that our young men should display.”
Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc is opposed to sagging pants but want to take care in light of how our opposition may be perceived. We don’t want to blame the victims or criminalize the act. Marc Lamont Hill, Associate Professor of Education at Columbia University warns that much of the opposition against sagging is[viii]:
. . . nothing more than red herrings that play on a cynical, unsophisticated, and reactionary vision of our youth.
By linking sagging pants to prison culture, opponents are able to scare the public into believing in a one-to-one relationship between fashion choices and social deviance. By connecting it to homosexuality, they are able to play on the homophobic myth that being gay is a social contagion that can be avoided through the use of a sturdy belt.
The current moral panic, however, is particularly dangerous because it seduces us into focusing on the behaviors of youth rather than the current set of social conditions that place them under unprecedented levels of attack.
Today’s anti-sagging movement is not an isolated project, but part of a broader set of policies that comprise a full-fledged “War on Youth.” From unconstitutional civil injunctions against gangs to the rise of draconian zero-tolerance policies in schools, our nation has produced a set of policies that construct our youth in increasingly criminalized terms. In reality, these policies— combined with the elimination of after-school programs, playgrounds, recreation centers, and public libraries—are far more likely to produce anti-social outcomes than a pair of low-riding jeans.
We do not wish to be drawn into the trap of criminalizing our own. It is, however, to our benefit to discuss how we are perceived and how it is often those perceptions that make difficult the progress we seek to make. Collectively we must change that which is of little benefit to us all.
Staff at Citizens are very concerned about how people in prison are perceived. The perceptions of those who literally have power over whether a person in prison may get on with their lives after paying their debt to society is likely to be fueled by perceptions related to African-Americans in general and particularly those from urban communities. We view part of our work as an effort to improve the way people in prison are perceived and to engage in efforts to recreate in a positive way, images associated with people in prison. Although in prison, there should be no wholesale demonization or criminalization of people just because they are incarcerated. Going to prison is the punishment.
Thus, we at Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc., think it is unfair, despite questions about the origins of “sagging,” to think that people in prison are promoting or supporting this image or even want that it be associated with them. While nothing we have found supports this fear, one can easily make the leap and think this to be true. We have, however, found the very opposite to be true in our exchanges with people in prison. Among the hundreds of letters we have received from people in prison, nearly all have disassociated themselves from sagging. Typical comments made on this point are reprinted (with permission) below.
NW – Eastern Correctional Facility
Many in society are unaware of the positive adjustments that incarcerated men and women make while (in prison) and, sadly, only focus on negative perceptions
EC- Green Haven Correction Facility
(Blaming continued sagging on people in prison) is just another way of putting people in prison down and stripping away our humanity.
JAR – Eastern Correctional Facility
(People in prison) are not heroes . . . at least they shouldn’t be. (R)esponsible parenting (is key). A young boy taught to carry himself with dignity and respect would not walk around with his pants hanging and drawers showing.
DW – CSP – Solano
How can you take someone serious who looks like a clown?
JZ-Mid-Orange Correctional Facility
We’re against the idea of sagging as a usage to be associated with people in prison or society.
II- Shawangunk Correctional Facility
(Sagging) as a statement of defiance or dubious fashion statement, accomplishes the exact opposite of its intended effect.
KS- Woodbourne Correctional Facility
Sagging is degrading and demeaning and its equivalent to someone using the N-word to address someone else or themselves.
NS- Clinton Correctional Facility
I vehemently disagree with this being an image to be associated with men in prison. It’s appalling for those who are striving to be productive citizens.
RH- Elmira Correctional Facility
It (sagging) shows is a lack of respect for people who follow this trend and if they do not respect themselves then who’s going to respect them?
JP- Hudson Correctional Facility
No excuses accepted. Let’s take responsibility of our communities as men and have a positive dialogue with the youth to have them think about their behavior (sagging).
PC- Great Meadow Correctional Facility
All these people who commercialize it (sagging), are doing it for financial gain and do not care about who it demeans or offends.
CR- Sing Sing Correctional Facility
How is showing your buttocks promoting self worth?
DL- Sing Sing Correctional Facility
We need to address our conditions and poverty that evolve around the cause of sagging jeans.
DF- Sing Sing Correctional Facility
People of color will always be looked down upon until they strive and work towards a better image for their selves.
IF- Sing Sing Correctional Facility
It used to be me walking around with my pants below my a**. Now that I’m a grown man, I can’t do this (sagging) childish act anymore.
TR- Sing Sing Correctional Facility
I do want this image (sagging) to be associated with people in prison because then it will always be looked upon with disdain, like everything else about prison.
CP- Sing Sing Correctional Facility
I believe that the image of prisoners sagging their pants makes it more difficult to be accepted by different faucets of society.