Posted on July 30, 2013

Pull Up Your Pants or Get Out of New Jersey

Zara Kessler, Bloomberg, July 26, 2013

If you are heading to the Jersey shore this summer, it might be time to invest in a belt.

Earlier this month, an ordinance went into effect banning saggy pants on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey. The new dress code also includes prohibitions on bare feet and bare chests after 8 p.m., but it’s the saggy pants that garnered news media attention–if only for the delightful talk of underwear and puns about falling “through the cracks.”

The punishment for letting your shorts, bathing suit, pants or skirt slip more than three inches below the waist, exposing skin or underwear–and not complying when reminded of the rule? A penalty of between $25 and $100 for a first offense and $200 for a subsequent offense, as well as the possibility of up to 40 hours of community service.

To some extent, this is an honest attempt by local officials to make the boardwalk more attractive (literally) to visiting families. {snip}

Yet the ordinance is ridiculous. Weird laws exist around the country–the better to turn into slideshows. But this specific law is neither very local nor especially weird; it’s disturbingly common. According to the Associated Press, sagging pants are banned in the suburbs of New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla. In Flint, Michigan, failing to pull up your pants can put you behind bars for a year. Albany, Georgia, apparently has been raking in some money from fines on dropped drawers.

Even U.S. President Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue. Asked about such ordinances in an MTV interview shortly before the 2008 election, Obama called them “a waste of time.” But he added: “Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on. You don’t have to pass a law, but that doesn’t mean folks can’t have some sense and respect for other people. And a lot of people may not want to see your underwear. I’m one of them.”

Obama’s use of “brothers” is telling. The sagging pants trend grew out of baggy, and beltless, prison uniforms, entered the hip-hop world and then permeated mainstream youth culture.

It would be easy, then, to conclude that these ordinances are racist. And some have–including, in Wildwood’s case, a few rappers. It’s not quite so simple. Pants are falling down on kids of all colors. A 2007 New York Times article about the trend reported that it was actually black officials who were more often suggesting the bans. The Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts ran a public service announcement warning young men that failing to pull up their pants could land them in jail for up to three years. The local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president vocally supported the ban passed in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, this April.

“If anybody says this is racist, that’s a load of crap,” Ernest Troiano, Jr., Wildwood’s mayor, told Bloomberg News. “It’s about decency.” Troiano said no one’s going to be patrolling the boardwalk with a measuring tape. He’s emphasized that tickets will only be issued after sagging offenders are warned and asked to pull up their pants or leave the boardwalk.