MAXWELL:  Wasting time on nonsense like a pimp cap

7/23/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A 15-year-old African-American teenager entered a sprawling upscale shopping mall in St. Petersburg. He wore a white cap tilted sideways. The cap, part of the Pimpgear line of teen apparel, sported the word “pimp” on the front. The teen was ejected from the mall because he broke a mall rule prohibiting headgear tilted sideways.

The boy told his dad, a well-known local minister, about the ordeal, and the good reverend marshaled his forces, convened a press conference at the mall and declared that his son was tossed out because he is black. In other words, the ejection was an act of racism.

I do not know if the ouster was racist or not. Over the years as a columnist, I have received telephone calls from black and white parents claiming that their children have been harassed at the mall for breaking this or that rule, including the wearing of inappropriate apparel.

My own son, along with several of his sidekicks, was kicked out of the mall for wearing clothes that appeared to be gang-related. When he and his buddies complained to me, I told them to get lost.

They knew damned well that mall officials had good reason for posting the apparel rule. I also told my son that if he wore gang-looking stuff there again, he would have me to deal with, too. Never again did I want to be pulled away from my job, our only means of support, because of his silliness. If he could not follow the rules, he should stay away from the mall.

I never have been able to work up a lather over such incidents for two main reasons:

First, children win too often against adults in this me-myself-and-I society. And winning is everything to Americans. The winner takes all, in fact. We see kids winning everywhere, especially in our schools, the one arena where adult authority is most needed for the orderly process of learning to proceed.

Many parents, like their children, believe that the term “adult authority” is tantamount to a four-letter word. They refuse to back other adults, especially teachers (and mall officials, by the way). Instead, some even go to court over matters that could be settled by telling their children to obey.

If mall officials are forced to prostrate themselves before this teen and his father, something valuable will be lost.

As a colleague and I discussed the mall flap, he, trying to apply recrimination, said that I must have had run-ins with adults, especially at school, when I was a child.

No, I replied, I never had a run-in with an adult. In my day, kids rarely had “run-ins” with grown folk. The term run-in suggests a willful act by the child that is intended to provoke a confrontation. Put another way, it is flouting authority.

No, I certainly did not have run-ins with adults in school or anywhere else. My goal was to win a football scholarship. Coaches Irving, Colbert, Davis and Turner had a simple rule: Get into trouble _ especially talking back to an adult _ and you could not play for them. No play, no scholarship. Period.

I simply did not have room in my plans for run-ins with adults. The payoff was a football scholarship to Wiley College in Marshall, Texas.

If truth be told, my childhood friends and I never considered besting adults. That prospect seemed unnatural. Actually, we saw no advantage in such victories because our parents were usually right, even when they were harsh. Before confronting another adult on our behalf, our parents had to have unimpeachable evidence that we had been wronged. Otherwise, we had to grin and bear it, whatever “it” was.

The second reason that I have little sympathy for children who needlessly buck authority is that I remember the hell my generation of black children experienced. Ours was a childhood of real human challenges, not crooked-cap nonsense.

We had to drink out of designated water fountains and swim on separate sides of the lake. The humiliation is indescribable. Winning the right to drink and swim anywhere we wanted consumed us, not a T-shirt logo. When a friend of mine, a ninth-grader, was accused of winking at a white girl, the black community had to raise money for his bail. We feared that he would be dragged from his cell and hanged before we could hand the money to the bondsman. Needless to say, we prayed a lot.

We were concerned, too, that we had to use textbooks worn out by the white children across town. We cared that we did not have lab equipment, that we rode the bus more than two hours each school day, that we could not dine in any downtown cafe, that we had to ride in the back of the city bus.

My point is that we had real problems to solve. Ours was a world of palpable _ not imagined _ inequities and evils, things that often led to violence and even death. If someone had complained about not being able to wear a certain T-shirt or a cap in a unique posture, we would have laughed ourselves into comas. Finally, someone would have said, “Hell, blood, just put the cap on straight and go about your business.”

I hope the young man here in St. Petersburg fixes his pimp-cap problem. I hope, but doubt, that he and his father and their followers gain something positive from this encounter.

Meanwhile, mall officials need to enforce their rules and do what is best for the greatest number of consumers. And, of course, race should not be a consideration in their decisions and actions.