Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Policing the appearance of marginalized communities is an American tradition. Making it actual law can have life-destroying consequences.
Dadeville, Alabama, city council member Frank Goodman has some thoughts on fashion. He’s proposed an ordinance that would fine what he calls “slacking”—allowing one’s pants to sag below the waist or wearing skirts that show one’s legs. This puts Dadeville in the company of several other cities that have attempted to police saggy jeans and miniskirts. The city of Albany, Georgia could once boast that it profited from fining saggy pants.
Goodman’s fellow city council member Stephanie Kelley was concerned that the ordinance would have a discriminatory impact on boys. So she proposed applying it to girls as well. As Kelley told The Daily Beast, “When you got on short shorts or a short skirt, leaving nothing to the imagination… it’s like you’re advertising.”
Though this particular ordinance was apparently inspired by God, there’s also a history of racializing and criminalizing “slacking.” As NPR CodeSwitch reporter Gene Demby wrote in his investigation of that history last year, “Sagging ... has been [an] oddly long-lived source of agita.”
It can’t explicitly be said that Dadeville’s ordinance is racist, or that it targets young people of color, the demographic most often associated with sagging pants (Slim Jesus notwithstanding). After all, the ordinance was proposed and endorsed by the only two African Americans on the city council.
But the history that informs such a strong reaction to saggy pants has to do with the pesky issue of “respectability politics”—which is also an essential ingredient of “black-on-black crime” alarmism. Harvard professor Randall Kennedy wrote about the role of respectability politics in American history, protest, and politics in the cover story of this month’s Harper’s magazine. In defense of dressing respectably as one way of deterring racism, Kennedy wrote that, “proponents [of respectability politics] advocate taking care in presenting oneself publicly and desire strongly to avoid saying or doing anything that will reflect badly on blacks, reinforce negative racial stereotypes, or needlessly alienate potential allies,” and that “any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived.”
It should be noted that age and religion also have influenced the Dadeville ordinance. Goodman is 66 years old, and told The Daily Beast that before proposing it he had this talk with himself:
What would God do? Did God go around doing this? I prayed about this. I know that God would not go around with pants down. … He would show me this saggy pant—it’s one of the things He did not do. It is not in His orders to do that to gain eternal life.
As a 66-year-old black man in Alabama, Goodman must also understand his state’s long history of racial discrimination. Kennedy argues in his Harper’s piece that it’s specifically because of Jim Crow racism in Alabama that civil rights protestors of the 1960s needed to dress properly in their demonstrations. Writes Kennedy:
We know intuitively that our appearance affects the treatment we receive. Image does not wholly dictate response, but often it makes a difference. This proposition is so obvious as to be banal.
The argument is that prudent conduct and sensitivity to how we appear to others improve our chances for success in environments peppered with dangerous prejudices. It is unfortunate that safety might require such self-consciousness, and it is imperative to reform society such that self-defense of this sort is no longer needed. In the interim, however, blacks should do what they can to protect themselves against the burdens of a derogatory racial reputation that has been centuries in the making.
In other words, keep fighting racism and sexism, but just keep your pants pulled up or your skirts long while you do it—even if that means reinforcing the very bigotry that you’re fighting. It’s a worldview to which Kennedy is entitled, but it becomes something more consequential when it becomes a pretext for criminal policy. And that’s the part that the pro-respectability politics crowd misses: The impact of anti-”slacking” laws on criminal justice reforms.
It’s been well established that ordinances of this kind violate constitutionally protected expressions of free speech. The ACLU has often had to intervene when cities pass these ordinances to show how they become pretexts for illegal police searches and other unnecessary interactions with the criminal justice system.
Today it might be a $50 fine for wearing a too-short skirt, but an unpaid fine could lead to an arrest warrant, which could lead to jail time, which ends up affecting everything from a person’s employability to their ability to serve on a jury. In that context, Dadeville’s ordinance, and Kennedy’s argument, come off as tone deaf to the very loud, bipartisan conversation currently held about mass incarceration and its devastating effects on black communities.