Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Dress Codes, Race, and Expression


Over at Inside Higher Ed, Penn professor Marybeth Gasman posts an interesting op-ed about a new dress code at Morehouse, one of the nation’s premier historically black colleges.  Banned are “caps, do-rags, and hoods in the classrooms, cafeteria and indoors; sun glasses and grillz; clothing with lewd comments; sagging pants and pajamas in public; and women’s clothing and accessories.”

Professor Gasman sees both expressive and racial problems with the policy:

However, as I think about the new Morehouse dress code, I am reminded that much of America (read: white America) does not see African Americans as individuals. If a young white male dresses in pajamas or saggy pants, and a lewd t-shirt on a predominantly white campus, he is seen neither as a representative of his race nor his campus. And let’s be honest, anyone who visits campuses these days, including some of the most prestigious in the country, will see many white male students displaying more of their underwear than most of us want to see, wearing caps inside, and displaying crude T-shirts. But when a young black male wears saggy pants, pajamas, or a do-rag, many Americans see him as a representative of all black America (and in this case, Morehouse College). The stakes are higher for black men because of American racism. The stakes are higher for Morehouse College as well.

I do think she has a bit of a point. I do think do-rags, saggy pants, etc. are seen as marks of black urban culture, but I think she underestimates the extent to which white kids wearing the same clothes aren’t taken seriously (and even mocked).  

As a graduate of a predominantly white Christian university with a (then) more strict dress code, I think Professor Gasman also underestimates the extent to which dress codes at private universities were the rule rather than the exception and remain the rule at those colleges that have not abandoned their historical identity in their pell-mell rush to run with the academic herd.

Simply put, at the private university (especially the religious private university), the dress code is an expression of institutional values.  It is, itself, part of the process of educating students at institutions whose purpose is far more ambitious than providing a solid education in a student’s chosen course of study.  At Lipscomb University, part of the mission was to educate the students what it meant to live an entire life as a Christian man or woman, and, yes, that includes dress.

In other words, the dress code — like many aspects of private university life — constituted an act of institutional expression created with the hope that it would become part of the students’ individual expression following college. I applaud Morehouse. It is doing what few private educational institutions have the courage to do — retain its distinctive and distinguished identity.


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