Life + Culture

Logical Fallacies: Pull Your Pants Up

Red X over the words 'logical fallacy'This post is part of an ongoing series on common logical fallacies used in conversations about race. If you have suggestions for logical fallacies that you'd like to see covered, submit your ideas here.

It's the inevitable counter retort when we talk about blighted communities, failing schools, or racial profiling by police: "pull your pants up."

It's the notion that if young black and brown men would just pull up their pants, the issues that plague them and their communities would suddenly go away. It puts the blame for injustice squarely on the oppressed, and patronizingly suggests that nonconformity with the dominant culture is at the root of their problems.

"Pull your pants up" is prescribed as though the problems that afflict black and brown neighborhoods  only arose when their pants began to sag. But the injustices we see in the United States are centuries old, and predate any fashion trend. Our communities are not undermined by the height of a waistband, but rather by long-standing, systemic oppression that concentrates disadvantage while outsourcing opportunity.

The reality is that even if oppressed communities managed to behave perfectly, their troubles would not go away. Dressing the way the dominant culture wants will not end unfair housing practices or injustice sentencing laws. Speaking the way the dominant culture wants will not end police brutality or income inequality. These practices existed long before sagging jeans, and they won't be stopped just by hiking them up again.

At best, "pull your pants up" is a wringing of hands over a speck in the eye of young men of color, while an unjust society allows the log of systemic racism go completely unexamined. "You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." (Matthew 7:5)

We know that Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers were all shot while wearings suits and that their fine attire did not save them. Archbishop Oscar Romero was wearing his priestly robes, leading Christians in worship, when he was murdered. Respectability will not and cannot save anyone, even if you are dressed in your Sunday best and praying in a church pew.

Sagging pants agitate some opponents to the point of fury. But how quickly we forget 'disrespectful attire' of yesteryear, when long-haired kids were told to "get a haircut and get a real job" and then blamed when run-ins with the police turned violent. Or recall how Madonna first used underwear as outerwear in a manner that is now the ubiquitous summertime tank top. And while her style challenged prevailing sensibility, it didn't prompt the same racialized anger we see raged against sagging pants (yet her trend certainly revealed more actual skin).

Black woman asking "Is my *natural hair* unprofessional?""But won't dressing that way keep them from getting a job and advancing in life?" some reply. If this were truly our concern, we would focus our outrage on the countless times that head scarves, natural hair, dastars, and other culturally-important styles are discriminated against in the workplace. With these policies, we maintain the fallacy that to look 'successful', is to look white, and all others are 'inappropriate.' It doesn't take long before this belief to lead to significant wage disparity and discriminatory hiring practices. If we are truly concerned about the very real issues of employer discrimination, then once again our efforts should be focused on the oppressor, not in changing the appearance of the oppressed.

But I suspect that this is not really what's going on when we say "pull your pants up." Instead, as Bradley Ryder notes, "we’ve allowed our inner-most prejudices to create a set of fashion rules that police use to legally profile would-be criminals." It is used as a rationalization for the prejudices that are already there, and to provide further fodder for the preconceived notions we've imposed, often with devastating consequences.
Street signs: "Clean up after your horse" and "Pull up your pants"
'Pull your pants up' falls into a broader category of logical facility called 'respectability politics,' and its very close sibling 'cultural pathology.' It says that cultures or people are inherently responsible for their own misfortune through some combination of genetics, upbringing, and/or values. It suggests that simply becoming more 'likable' will solve the problems that you face. Indeed, it is at the root of the media's need to uncover all the dark secrets a black victims' life in an effort to determine what they 'did wrong to deserve it.'

The message is "if you become like us, then maybe we'll treat you better." But this path leads nowhere, because there is no end to the cultural hoops that oppressed groups will be asked to jump through.

Derailing conversations on racism into a critique of attire reveals a shallow understanding of the issues at play, and a callous attitude for the lives at stake. It's an unhelpful way to further the dialogue, and misplaces the causal root of the issues.

So to all such critics: pull your pants up, your racism is showing.

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