After initially defending its controversial sneakers, Adidas rightfully decided to cancel its plans to release the JS (Jeremy Scott) Roundhouse Mid shoe this week amid intense public criticism, saying “we apologize if people are offended by the design.” Set to release in August, the now infamous “slave shoes” were briefly marketed on the company’s Facebook page as “a sneaker game so hot you lock your kicks to your ankles.” The price tag that Adidas tacked on for helping its customers “tighten up [their] style” with chains and shackles? $350.
While Adidas is not the only sneaker company to be accused of cultural insensitivity over the years, its recent marketing gaffe highlights an unhealthy relationship that endures between the sneaker industry and its predominantly urban consumer base. These companies continue to send a dangerous message: We want your money, but we aren’t concerned with being sensitive to your history, culture and socio-economic plight.
Indeed, Adidas has had an organic relationship with hip-hop culture. It started when the company brilliantly capitalized on Run DMC’s hit song “My Adidas” in 1985, commodifying the group’s love affair with the iconic “shell-top” sneakers. Even then, Adidas recognized African Americans as a powerful economic force within the American fashion industry when few others did.
This notch under Adidas’s historical belt is why it’s so disturbing to think that it allowed a symbol of enslavement to make its way through its approval pipeline. Cultural trust was betrayed when the company didn’t factor centuries of subjugation and alarming African American mass incarceration rates into its decision-making. Who does the company have sitting around its board room tables?
Jessie Jackson echoed this sentiment in a recent Huffington Post article when he wrote: “For Adidas to promote the athleticism and contributions of a variety of African-American sports legends — especially Olympic heroes Wilma Rudolph and Jesse Owens and boxing great Muhammad Ali — and then allow such a degrading symbol of African-American history to pass through its corporate channels and move toward actual production and advertisement, is insensitive and corporately irresponsible.” Jackson went as far as to threaten to boycott the brand if the shoes ever saw the light of day.
Let’s be clear: These corporations are no stranger to irresponsibility. The retail prices of their products alone are outright sinful. But the consumer is responsible, too, as companies will supply only what the public is willing to buy. It’s tragic to think that working-class folks stand in line for hours to get new released designer sneakers (like Nike Air Jordans and Nike Air Yeezy II — named after rapper Kanye West) that cost a third of their rent.
This behavior inspired hip-hop journalist Davey D to pose an important question when the Adidas controversy gained the media’s attention: “When will we stop being slaves to expensive kicks?” I agree that disenfranchised communities are participating in their own exploitation, as well as the exploitation of sweatshop workers overseas.
We, as black Americans, have to take this exploitation seriously. We can’t minimize poor economic decisions to jokes about a mother who would buy her toddler son a pair of Jordans before she would buy him formula. Financial literacy conversations and trainings are needed, particularly when African Americans have the nation’s highest unemployment rates.
But, as Davey D rightfully points out, this isn’t just a crisis of prioritization; it’s also deeply psychological. Too many of us are enslaved to the validation that we think designer brands give us. Growing up in the District at a time when Versace, DKNY and Dolce and Gabbana were household names, I saw and experienced the allure of expensive brand names firsthand.
And companies such as Adidas know this, which is why they continue to market pricey sneakers to teens living in urban communities. “No one wants to talk about the millions they spend in marketing research which results in them honing sophisticated strategies designed to get inside the heads and psychologically hook particular demographics of people, most of them young. Many of them poor,” says Davey D. He continues, “It was [because of] this fear of sophisticated marketing and the concern of folks deemed vulnerable and easily influenced that we don’t have cigarette and certain types of alcohol ads on TV.”
This is why corporate intention doesn’t mean as much as the end result. So while a writer at the New York Observer can come to Adidas’s defense for designing a shoe inspired by the once popular “My Pet Monster,” I’m with folks like Jackson who say we should “resent and resist them.” We must, especially when money and cultural sensitivity isn’t all that’s at stake.
In January, 19-year-old David Lee Robinson, who was looking forward to the birth of his first child, was gunned down in Washington, DC. When the police found him, his $200 Nike Rookie shoes had been taken from his feet. While the specific motivations for Robinson’s killing are still unclear, he very well may be one of countless tragic examples of young people who have paid the ultimate price of wearing high-end sneakers — with his life.
Nike can’t be held responsible for that tragic loss. But in 2003, when it sought to market a shoe called “Loaded Weapon” backed by Dwayne Wade, the public pushed back. And we must continue to hold these companies accountable, leveraging every power we have in shifting corporate decision-making.
If we don’t push back, then companies such as Nike and Adidas will continue to create and market products targeted at us without a concern for our history and culture. And as the saying goes — people (corporations included) will do what you allow them to do to you.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT