The city of Ocala, Florida may well be the vanguard for a movement to address what has become a contentious societal issue in America.
Since the mid 1990’s there has been a steadily increasing trend primarily by young men to wear their pants lower than their waist, down around their hips. The theory most popular to the genesis of this trend is that it began as an extension of the garb prevalent in prison culture. Due to the potential of violence inside prisons among inmates, it has become a general practice to forbid belts to be worn by them to eliminate the potential it offers for belts to be used as weapons.
The practice which began in prison found its way into the hip hop culture, and was adopted by several well known rap and hip hop artists such as Ice T, Snoop Dog, Jay Z, and others to enhance their “street cred” because you’re not cool if you haven’t spent some time in jail. Young men who idolized anything associated with these artists soon followed, and the rest is history.
There are several things that have disturbed me from a sociological perspective. First and foremost every civilized nation has established behaviors and modes of dress that have been deemed as acceptable. Acceptable in the sense, that if you are out in public there ought to be limits beyond which it becomes unacceptable behavior.
The argument by the ACLU and others to the issue of “sagging” has been that of “Free Speech.” Free speech as articulated in the constitution does provide for the protection of citizens, when the speech crosses particular thresholds, such as libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, hate speech, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, and campaign finance reform. It is therefore clear that every expression of free speech must be weighed against whether or not the speech by its actions causes harm.
There can be no doubt the harm that has been caused by this fashion expression upon an entire generation, as well as scores of people who view “sagging” as an offensive form of public dress.
The harm it causes extends to the denial of employment by employers who have set a standard of dress in the workplace to the exclusion of someone who looks this way. When asked this question of dress as a presidential candidate in 2008 then Senator Barack Obama said, “Any business has a right to say, ‘This is the tone we want to set,’ as long as they aren’t discriminating on the basis of things people can’t control.” The harm it causes thirdly extends to how one is viewed by wearing pants in this manner. Many in our society as soon as they see an individual “sagging” place them mentally into the category of thug or criminal.
As a pastor and as the fifth vice-president of the Florida General Baptist Convention Inc, I can attest to the ongoing and continuous efforts of the religious community to try to overcome this trend, through educational workshops, youth training activities, parental involvement, and mentorships. I am of the belief that the actions taken by the Ocala city government to ban “sagging” will serve to undergird what has been, and is being continued inside the church.
I commend Councilwoman Mary Rich who spearheaded the saggy pants ban in Ocala, and reject the argument that it will affect black men disproportionately. One look inside any mall or on the street of any city will clearly show it is not just a black phenomenon. It may have started that way, but clearly young white men, Hispanics, and Asians have quickly assimilated themselves into this culture as well.
While I commend the city of Ocala, at the same time I want to challenge Mayor Derrick Henry and the Commissioners of Daytona Beach, FL to enact a similar law. Do your due diligence by surveying the city, holding workshops for open expression, and talk with the city leaders in Ocala; I believe you will find overwhelming support for this to be done. Our elected officials have been charged with serving those who have elected them. The people are ready, and I hope our city leaders are ready too.
Rev. Dr. L. Ronald Durham
Pastor, Greater Friendship Baptist Church
Fifth Vice President, Florida General Baptist Convention Inc.