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Saggin' on the Down Low?
Editor's Note: Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke and author of "New Black Man" (Routledge, 2005), which outlines a new model of black masculinity.
Durham, NC - Given the number of crises facing municipalities across the United States today, it seems unfathomable that "saggin'" -- young men wearing their trousers well below their waistline -- would become such a hot political issue. Yet politicians in several cities have taken time from dealing with taxes and road repairs to pass ordinances that allow saggers -- primarily young black men -- to be cited. One Louisiana town issues a $500 fine.
In the city of Dallas, local business leaders, politicians and an aspiring rapper named Dewayne Brown, aka Dooney Da' Priest, got creative in their efforts to discourage saggin' by producing a public service announcement called "Pull Your Pants Up." The PSA uses homophobic slurs in a blatant attempt to embarrass saggers into literally pulling up their jeans.
The slurs are intentional, probably well-intended - -- and unfortunate. Here's why.
The hip-hop generation has shown there are few things that can shame it. However, some within the hip-hop generation, particularly mainstream commercial rappers, have been quite sensitive to suspicions that they might be gay.
Within gay subcultures, saggin' can be read as a sign of availability. This is perhaps the link Brown was trying to make with lyrics like, "You walk around with your pants way down low/I dunno, looks to me you're on the down low." The term "down low" is a reference to men who publicly live heterosexual lives, but engage in homosexual relations in private. Throughout "Pull Your Pants Up," Brown regularly contrasts saggers with "real men" who wear belts. When Brown also describes saggers as "degenerate" and a "disgrace to your race" and explicitly links such behavior to homosexuality, he makes clear that homosexuality is as offensive as saggin'.
When members of GLBT communities voiced concerns about the PSA's homophobic content, Brown issued a half-hearted apology. An ordained minister who has worked with well-known televangelist TD Jakes, Brown's lyrics tellingly mirror the homophobic rhetoric that comes out of black church institutions. To be fair, many black churches have been a critical component in the effort to save young black men from unproductive lives, but homophobic attitudes are pervasive.
Also, saggin' is nothing new. Long-time observers of urban youth culture can recall seeing examples of saggin' at least 20 years ago. In those days, saggin' was linked to prison culture and the fact that prisoners were not allowed to wear belts. For many of those first generation of saggers, the style was an emblem of their hardcore status.
More recently, as commercial rap music and aspects of hip-hop culture began to embrace aspects of hardcore street culture, the mainstream public began to equate saggin' with criminality. I wonder if saggin' would be seen as such a public nuisance if young black males weren't already viewed as such.
I trust Brown and Dallas city leaders have good intentions for the young black men in their city, even if their efforts to legislate style choices are misguided. Nevertheless, in their efforts to save young black men, they have fallen into a trap that suggests it is okay to demonize one group of people -- in this case, gay men -- in their efforts to elevate another.
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