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.
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.