My mother, a retired educator and school administrator, recently attended a luncheon with some of her closest friends. The organizers recruited local high school students to serve as greeters for the event. As my mother told me about her day, she shared that “our young ladies need help.” She was concerned about the students’ revealing, tight-fitting clothes and unkempt hair that she felt was inappropriate for the event.
What struck me about her description was that she claimed the students. Although my mother did not know those students and had not worked full time as an educator for years, she said our young ladies need help.
I realized she has always claimed people that others might reject. Now retired, she substitute teaches from time to time. Her classes include students from a range of socio- economic, geographic, ability and racial groups. Even as a substitute, any student in her classroom belongs to her. I see now that it is this model from my mother that jolts me every time I hear what I like to call “sagging-pants politics.”
Sagging is a style of dress that has become synonymous with thug, deviant, criminal, or at best, ignorant and sloppy, and is usually attributed to black and Latino young men. “Sagging-pants politics” is using that style of dress (or speech or other behavior) as an excuse for our failure to our children.
This tactic plays out on both sides of the political aisle. At an RNC sponsored commemoration of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, a speaker who reminded us a few times that he had marched with Dr. King shared the story of an admirable young woman who is homeless and often sleeps on buses, but is working her way through college. He continued that leaders should focus their support on students like her who deserve it, not youth who don’t care. His picture of those who don’t deserve it included young men with sagging-pants. A few months later, at a commemoration of the Voting Rights March in Selma, a member of the cabinet promoted the White House’s new initiative, My Brother’s Keeper. He talked about the initiative’s design to help black and Latino boys, who are least likely to succeed in our country. In the midst of his description about how we must help them, he added that they have to meet us halfway. Included in his list of what that would look like was the need to pull up their pants.
Apparently, sagging marks you as a young person who does not deserve support, encouragement or help. Both speakers were black men, but even they didn’t claim these young men who looked like them. Both speakers effectively decided that young men who sag their pants (and all that implies) are a problem, and the solution to that problem is to exclude them from the support until and unless they change first.
When did we decide that our children are a problem, to be solved by division?
When we divide our children into categories of deserving and non-deserving we lose sight of solving the actual problems they face, and we inevitably leave many of them behind.
My most optimistic self wants to assume that those leaders’ statements came from a place of concern for the children they referenced. But as is often said about many children, the speakers are misguided. So, leaders, I leave you with some observations that I have seen in my mother and her colleagues, family members and friends who are excellent educators, and from my own previous experience working with young people. These approaches have led them to solve problems, such as helping children who were failing succeed in school, or inspiring children to reject violence. Most importantly these approaches helped them when they’ve attained positions of leadership to focus on the actual problems and make systemic change instead of being distracted by symptoms.
- Claim all of our young people. Claiming someone means that you acknowledge you are in relationship to them in some way. And given the global economy and rapidly shifting race and class demographics in the United States, it’s becoming clearer that we are all connected to one another. The children who don’t “deserve” our attention today will be adults very soon, and they are unavoidable.
- Find talent and value in each person. Look past outward appearances that disappoint or upset you to find what talent or skill a person may have. Help them translate that talent into a manifestation that can be appreciated by the dominant culture, instead of requiring that they conform to the dominant culture before you engage with them.
- Don’t confuse symptoms with causes. Saying that boys and young men need to pull their pants up might garner some applause and a sound byte, but it reinforces a belief that the MAIN reason that young men who dress that way don’t succeed is because of their attire. It is especially dangerous for leaders to play into common misconceptions.
- Ask why. If you don’t understand why a person dresses a certain way or behaves a certain way, you can ask them if you have a relationship with them. “Why” is a powerful question that can help us get beyond the symptoms to the root of the problem, and make lasting change.
Ultimately we, the collective people, are called to decide where our priorities lie. We can employ sagging-pants politics and perpetuate the lie that large portions of our young people are undeserving, or we can rise to the challenge of addressing the problems they face without being distracted by their clothes.