Published On: Sun, Apr 22nd, 2012

Black Masculinity, Booty Bandits and the Fashion Police

Our cultural war on Black masculinity when not painstakingly deadly is prudish. Is it sexual desire or the fear of it that forces people, even other men, to gaze at young Black men’s behinds then invoke police powers to “stop and frisk” them?  Such homophobia has generated an American fatwa and literally turned government officials into “booty-bandit” fashion police.

Photo: Mei-Chun Jai/Dallas Morning News-AP

At least nine US states and more local jurisdictions have statutes that not only render any perceived exposure of a young man’s buttocks taboo, but also authorize his punishment if he refuses to pull up his pants.  Even Brooklyn’s State Senator Eric Adams is doggedly determined to rid sagging pants from New York schools.

Sagging pants may romanticize 1980s prison culture as some scholars, activists, and politicians claim. But, at this point, sagging is a mundane show of boxer shorts. To emphasize a jailhouse history only adds “street cred” to its allure. American culture has always loved outlaws. Weren’t our “Founding Fathers” heaped with accolades for stealing land from Natives and holding Africans hostage to work it? And east of Eden gangsters, pirates, and assorted “booty bandits” became Hollywood icons.

The reality is youth are wearing sagging pants—no matter what their origins—in ways that are culturally meaningful to them now. If it annoys old(er) people, so much the better. Lord knows I wasn’t the only baby-boomer with contemptible styles that irked my elders. Check out any video of the original Soul Train line. Does anyone else remember wriggling into hip-hugger jeans so tight your bare derriere could spare no air? And those Jheri-curls and platform shoes….

I am amazed that sagging has lasted for over 25 years. One day I asked one of my anthropology students why he wore his pants like that. “Cause the girls like boys with big butts,” he answered without hesitation. I chuckled as I questioned if, from his perspective, sagging wasn’t simply a way of being more attractive to girls. Was he describing his own courting ritual? Are girls “booty bandits” too? And if curmudgeons are complaining, could it be because they aren’t invited to the mating dance?

Or maybe it’s sagging’s close association with the creative and commercial success of Black hip-hop artists. When Forbes values Jay-Z’s fortune at $460 million and ad man Steve Stoute argues rap music ”rewrote the rules of the new economy,” sagging may be tacit acknowledgment that the old-fashioned mythology of finishing school then getting a job with a living wage fails many young Black American men. Sagging might signify alternative lawful means to overcome humble beginnings.

Nevertheless, I’m not so naïve to think there’s no real danger in being fodder for the US prison-industrial complex. Caring adults must be asking, why hand someone a stick to crack your head? Meanwhile, another anthropologist, Lee Baker, has observed that US white supremacy can criminalize any clothes fashionable among young Black American men. It’s who’s wearing it that makes it “criminal,” not the clothing per se.

Ironically, both Black bourgeois chastisement and the implicit rejection of traditional ways of achieving the American Dream give legitimacy to racist “booty-bandit” homophobia. Could fear of “booty bandits” simply be a straw man distracting those who seek better financial literacy for solutions to Black male frustration? Well-intentioned Black Americans could be ignoring a counter-cultural sign of a desire for economic viability already there. If so, by enlisting the US fashion police to execute an edict punishing sagging pants, we undermine the very goals we ostensibly hoped to inspire.

Charles Townsend is an independent scholar, a faculty advisor for Pearson Education, Inc., and an adjunct lecturer in anthropology at the City University of New York.

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Displaying 8 Comments
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  1. Brian says:

    Great perspective here, Charles. I was firmly ensconced in the “Get Off My Lawn” camp of fist wavers before coming across your article. I still believe though that there is some form of reluctance on the part of our some of our African American brothers to grow up. I will accept the rebellion part, but when does one move on? Some guys carry this trend well into their 20’s and beyond. I’m reminded of a quote (I’ll paraphrase here) from T. Perry’s “Daddy’s Little Girls” wherein a successful black woman states that she can’t get with a 25 year old man who’s still sporting throwbacks on the regular and playing video games. The quote itself is taken out of context, but something in it resonates with me. I also straight up don’t want to see your dirty azz! I mean, can a brother even dash out of the path of a speeding car if his jeans are buckled around his thighs?

    Another troubling trend I’ve noticed is homophobia on the part of some defenders of sagging. For instance, I was going through the comments thread of an article which gave an example of a celeb wearing well-tailored pants and most of the opinions were that he looked “gay” (I’m being kind right now, but you get the picture).

    I’ve also taken into consideration the fact that I’m a 60’s baby, and I have now become my parents! But thanks again for applying some much-needed shading to this issue.

  2. Brian says:

    To Moderator: Sorry for the double post. I had to correct some typos in my original comment.

  3. Reggie says:

    I basically agree with Brian, at some point one must grow past the fad and learn some history. Being a streetwise baby boomer, former subatance abuser, activist, socially conscience entrepreneur etc, etc… I get the dilemma they face, but exposure to whats going on in the media must provoke some thought! Are they so consumed/absorbed with their image that they can’t take a moment to engage in some dialouge that’s relevant to them? One can keep their identity while educating themselves and this will affect change; just like it did for us. We, as the adult in the room, must also have some responsibility in this process.

  4. Terry says:

    Great article Charles. I personally feel they not should be punished for being different. Society needs to focus on more important issues troubling our society. I am concerned if this obsession with sagging pants spirals into multiple Travon Martin cases. White America is always looking for an excuse to terrorize African-American men. We must also be reminded that white males and Latino males are wearing this look as well.

  5. vivaldi says:

    Charles Townsend’s piece is illuminating. Unlike, traditional approaches to the current debate around sagging and police, which privileges a conformist perspective, Townsend engages sagging from different perspectives in consistence with the unbiased gaze of an anthropologist. Townsend is definittely on the right track in investigating the policing of sagging, given that as an American institution, the police was created to reinforce White master’s regulation of slaves. And that accordingly, the criminilization of the Black bodies is the fundamental presmise of the police. Townsend articulates how the police’s attitude toward sagging is another phase in the relationship of the police and Black bodies. I hope to read future contributions of Townsend on this website.

  6. I work with college kids, and I have come across several young men with 3.0 and 4.0 GPA’s who sag. It is a fad, people. Sagging says very little about a young, Black man’s phsyche, his values or his goals in life. We so need to get over ourselves. Soon enough this trend will go the way of bell bottoms and mega afros.

  7. Dr Mac says:

    Ok, I admit, sagging “appears” to be meaningless and rather dumb, but while we are banning young (black) males from showing their boxers, are we going to ban old white women (or any women) from showing cleavage? Hmm… Boxers or breasts, which is worse? I’m thinking my granny would be equally appalled.

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