EARLIER THIS WEEK, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority in Texas announced that it will "get tough" on enforcing a dress code that bans sagging pants from the city's public transportation.
The Texas decision is nothing new. Over the past several years, cities around the country have made similar decisions regarding the hip-hop-inspired fashion trend. A year ago, New York state Sen. Eric Adams drew national headlines by unveiling the "Stop Sagging" campaign, a series of billboards and viral Web videos that decry the practice of wearing pants below the waist.
In Michigan, Louisiana, Texas and Florida, politicians have taken the anti-sagging movement even further by passing laws that outlaw the fashion trend through the creation of public-decency ordinances.
Do we really have nothing better to do?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not a huge fan of sagging pants. The older I get, the more absurd and unattractive I find the practice. Still, the fact that legislators around the country can devote serious time, energy and political muscle to the sartorial predilections of teenagers means that we have seriously misplaced priorities.
Much of the outrage over sagging pants is rooted in the belief that the trend is an outgrowth of prison culture in which inmates are forced to sag their pants because they aren't permitted to wear belts. Others argue it's a sign of prison homosexuality, as gay inmates expose their buttocks to let others know that they are sexually available.
While the claims about prison culture may be true - though they look and smell like a well- crafted urban legend - there is little credible evidence that they provide the origins of the current hip-hop trend. There is even less evidence that the youth who sag their pants are consciously or unconsciously trying to mimic the practices of prisoners.
These sorts of arguments are nothing more than red herrings that play on a cynical, unsophisticated and reactionary vision of our youth. They allow politicians to score cheap political points on the backs of our children.
By linking sagging pants to prison culture, opponents are able to scare the public into believing in a one-to-one relationship between fashion choices and social deviance. By connecting it to homosexuality, they are able to play on the homophobic myth that being gay is a social contagion that can be avoided through the use of a sturdy belt.
Such arguments are not new. From the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles to the Senate hearings on gangster rap, every generation of adults has expressed deep anxiety about the cultural practices of the next generation. This anxiety is rooted in a natural but troublesome nostalgia that allows adults to forget how much our parents hated our hairstyles, clothing and music preferences. The current moral panic, however, is particularly dangerous because it seduces us into focusing on the behavior of youth rather than on social conditions that are placing youth under unprecedented levels of attack.
Today's anti-sagging movement is not an isolated project, but part of a broader set of policies that comprise a full-fledged "War on Youth." From unconstitutional civil injunctions against gangs to the rise of draconian zero-tolerance policies in schools, our nation has produced a set of policies that construct our youth in increasingly criminalized terms. In reality, these policies - combined with the elimination of after-school programs, recreation centers and public libraries - are far more likely to produce anti-social outcomes than a pair of low-riding jeans.
By focusing on relatively harmless fashion trends, we effectively sidestep the issues that truly undermine the life chances of our youth such as poverty, crumbling schools and an increasingly shaky labor market. Our attention to fashion contributes to an increasingly popular narrative about this generation of youth that focuses on containment and blame rather than investment and love. If we truly worry about the futures of our children, we should stop judging their clothes and take a good look at ourselves.
Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia and the host of "Our World With Black Enterprise," which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays on TV-One. Contact him at MLH@marclamonthill.com.