I'll be the first to admit that some legislators in Nashville and in state capitols across the country have been proposing controversial bills to provide solutions for problems that don't exist. But I would point out that it is possible for serious people in the Legislature to be doing important work while the clowns are out in the hall getting all the press attention.
I rise today, however, to defend a bill that has met with almost universal derision and has often been used as an easy example of frivolous meddling. I'm talking about the baggy pants bill. You might think a law to stop schoolchildren from wearing their pants hanging off their hips was the idea of an uptight white Republican who hates hip hop.
Joe Towns, the principle sponsor of the legislation, is a black Democratic legislator from Memphis. Why has he pursued this idea for some years?
The style of pants around the butt with several inches of underwear sticking out the top began in prisons and jails, where inmates are not allowed belts. Is it a good thing if our high school students look at convicts as role models? That they want to identify with thugs and drug dealers, 'cause it's, like, cool?
It seems a trivial thing unless you think about it. Baggy pants won't get you a job. It won't help you have an attitude conducive to learning in school. It is a way of identifying with losers.
Do you understand why a black legislator from Memphis finds such an ethos troubling?
But sometimes you take a stand on the little things and it has large outcomes.
Manhattan has always been one of my favorite places. Ironic for someone who has always wanted to live in the country, but I love the Big Apple and started going there in the 1960s. Over the years it came to be a lawless and dangerous place. Then along came Mayor Rudy Giuliani. When he told his police officers to start arresting turnstile jumpers and graffiti artists, the idea was met with derision as well. The city has big problems and the mayor was focusing on the little stuff. He insisted that broken windows be fixed. That graffiti be removed. Turns out grabbing turnstile jumpers resulted in finding a lot of criminals with much more serious warrants in their file.
Over time, New York became one of the safest cities in the world. You could walk up and down Broadway or Fifth Avenue any time, day or night, and feel comfortable. I never worried about my daughter who went from a Knoxville high school and living on a farm to spend four years at NYU and living in Manhattan. She now lives in Brooklyn.
This may seem like a stretch, to compare Towns' baggy pants bill to Giuliani's accomplishments. But the principle is the same. If schools want students to learn, if they want to create an atmosphere where success is the goal, then getting rid of thuggish clothes is a good place to start.
It is hard to imagine a young person being serious about learning, studying, or having an attitude that admires achievement if they can barely walk because the crotch of their pants is around their knees and their underwear is up over their navel.
There are some schools that have uniforms. Khaki pants and skirts and blue shirts, maybe. Blue blazers. One reason they do this is to ensure that clothes are not a distraction. They also help instill a sense of discipline.
You can argue that baggy pants and uncovered underwear is also a uniform. That it is merely a cultural difference. You would be right. But what if you need to change the culture?
Who is likely to be more successful in the world? The evidence suggests the khakis and blazer uniform is more of an indicator of success than the baggy pants and visible underwear uniform.
So let us salute Joe Towns for trying to do something to improve education in his community.
The baggy pants bill is on the way to Gov. Bill Haslam's desk. Let's hope it does some good.