In my family we know better than to visit our grandparents wearing sagging pants — or, in the case of young women, low-rider jeans or sheer pants with thongs peeking. Granddad will call you out, and Grandma will pull you to the side.

Two men with low-slung, baggy jeans walk in Trenton, N.J., Sept. 15, 2007. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Many young people in our communities do not have old-fashioned grandparents to introduce them to the attitudes they will encounter in the world when they begin interviewing for jobs and applying for their first apartments. So, I was delighted last week to read about the Take Charge Foundation of Prince George’s County launching a Pull ‘Em Up campaign, designed to help young men understand the importance of their appearance.

The Pull ‘Em Up campaign is a month-long belt drive in the county. The Foundation has placed 13 belt collection boxes around the County, hoping to collect 500 belts by Nov. 1, to distribute through high schools.

“We’re trying to change the culture, step by step. The first step is to get the attention of young people and their parents,” says Take Charge executive director Jerrod Mustaf in a phone interview last week. “We’re not going to accept or tolerate young men with their pants sagging. It’s disrespectful, and they’re not going to be hired for any jobs.”

It was a job-training exercise for young people returning from a detention center that inspired the Pull ‘Em Up campaign, Mustaf said. The young men were to arrive dressed up for mock interviews. They were specifically told to wear khakis, a button-up shirt and tie if they lacked a formal suit or sport coat. Three out of five young men arrived wearing sagging khakis without a belt. They said they did not own a belt. They were 19- and 20-years-old. Mustaf said at that moment, he decided to start a campaign to address what he considers a counter-culture trend that cuts deeper than fashion.

“Some of them have been so conditioned to wearing sagging pants, that it didn’t resonate to them what dressing up is,” Mustaf said. “That’s a mindset, a culture that we have to change.”

The Take Charge Foundation provides activities and services to youths adjudicated through the courts system. Most of their clients are 14-18, and most are young men. The Foundation offers mentoring, life-skills classes, job-readiness, parenting enhancement, gang prevention, and crisis intervention. They also teach leadership and community service. Last weekend, for instance, a group of Take Charge young men participated in a community clean up at Central High School. The focus of the Foundation for the next two weeks, however, is on its “Pull ‘Em Up” campaign, which is addressing youth and parents county-wide and hoping to send a message to the black community at-large.

“We want to modify the culture of young people who believe it’s cool to wear sagging pants,” Mustaf said.

Efforts to legally restrict sagging pants got underway in states including Tennessee, Florida, Indiana and Alabama. The American Civil Liberties Union, has opposed efforts to legally outlaw saggy pants. Ben Chavis, former executive director of the NAACP opposed proposed legal restrictions, and Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, says legislation proposed by African-American lawmakers in some states may speak to a generation gap, according to a 2007 New York Times article.

But many middle-aged community leaders, including Mustaf, have criticized saggy pants, particularly the more recent trend of young men belting their baggy jeans at the bottom of their behinds to show off their boxers. The saggy pants trend is part of a glorification of incarceration. Since the 1990s, inmates were prohibited from wearing belts because they can be used for suicide or as weapons. Imitating their saggy pants became a political statement in the hip-hop culture. Cultural icons, as old as Jay Z, sport the style on the national stage.

Mustaf, following in the footsteps of the late C. Delores Tucker, who rallied against gangster rap, takes issue with hip-hop celebrities, who promote a counter-culture dress code. “How can a parent tell their son they can’t be like Jay-Z,” Mustaf said. “We have to call out our entertainers when we think they’re doing something that’s counter-productive to our communities.”

Mustaf has three sons, ages 7, 12 and 17. They know better, he said. “We grew up with grandparents around, and a man didn’t go out the house unless he wore a belt or suspenders,” Mustaf said. “I’m an extension of my father and my grandfather. So, my kids know better. There’s a pride thing.”

While I don’t wholly agree with everything our parents and grandparents said and did, I’m with them on this one. There is such a thing as appropriate dress, and our young people need to know.

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