There are serious issues in the fight between Nike, Inc., and Operation PUSH, and there is also some hocus-pocus.
The serious issues include whether the company is taking advantage of black inner-city youngsters (who favor Nike's high-priced athletic shoes) and doing too little for the black community. Nike, pointing to its charitable contributions, its affirmative-action hiring practices and its use of black heroes in its television ads, says it is doing a lot and intends to do a lot more. PUSH, stressing Nike's black-generated profits, its dearth of blacks in top management and its reluctance to negotiate the questions, says the company deserves to be boycotted by blacks.
Here's the hocus-pocus: the basis for PUSH's demands is the "exploitation" of inner-city youngsters; poor families are spending $100 a pair and more for Nike's athletic shoes, when their meager resources ought to be spent on more important things. The proposed solution is to place more blacks in top management positions, including seats on the board of directors, and buy more advertising from black-owned media outlets.
But if poor black kids are the "victims" of Nike's sales success, how are they helped by helping a handful of black executives to get better jobs? If low-income black families are being exploited by Nike's aggressive marketing, how is that exploitation reduced by forcing the company to advertise in black outlets, which presumably would expose yet more black youngsters to the lure of the shoes?
Like so many of the affirmative-action proposals, it amounts to a bait-and-switch game. The inner-city poor furnish the statistical base for the proposals, but the benefits go primarily to the already well-off.
The tactic is to use the plight of poor blacks to prove that blacks in the aggregate are underrepresented in college, graduate school or top management. The result is that some blacks -- most likely those that have been least crippled by racism -- get special-admission college seats and affirmative-action promotions.
My children -- and the children of my middle-class colleagues, who already enjoy important advantages -- no longer need to compete with their white counterparts. They compete instead with the children of Anacostia, Watts, Hough, Cabrini Green and Overtown -- a competition they are likely to win. Black executives who already hold good jobs get promoted to better ones; blacks who already sit on important corporate boards get another directorship. And the people who provide the statistical base get nothing.
The point is not to absolve Nike (or any other company) of its corporate-citizenship responsibilities but to show the hocus-pocus of giving further advantage to the already advantaged in the name of doing something for the poor.
The truth is, I don't know whether Nike is doing less for black America than its rival Reebok, which allegedly has escaped the boycotters' wrath by giving money to PUSH. Arguably, it should be doing a lot more.
Furthermore PUSH has a point when it argues that Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who earns some $200,000 a year in Nike endorsements, and basketball star Michael Jordan, may be in good position to comment on the quality of Nike's shoes but, having no corporate responsibility, are in no position to comment on Nike's corporate behavior.
"We're simply using our legitimate consumer right not to do business with companies that do not do business with us," said Tyrone Crider, successor to PUSH founder Jesse Jackson as executive director of the Chicago-based organization.
No argument there, though it is worth noting that there is a distinction between a consumer boycott and extortion -- between demands that the company do more for its customers and demands that it do more for PUSH.
I'd feel better about the PUSH effort if its demands included scholarships for inner-city children or gym equipment for inner-city neighborhoods or anything else to ameliorate the "exploitation" of the poor.
I know too much about the "glass ceiling" that limits the aspirations of female and minority managers to argue that Nike and the rest of corporate America have done all they should to break the hegemony of white males. We are a long way from parity in the executive suites and the boardrooms, and there's nothing wrong with demanding more.
My problem is the hocus-pocus of using the plight of the black poor to further those demands. The fact is we are talking about two different sets of problems: discrimination against middle-class black executives, on the one hand, and the thoroughgoing disadvantage of the black poor, on the other. Both need to be addressed, but it is dishonest to pretend that applying a tourniquet to the well-off will stop the bleeding of the poor.
What does it do for the poor for Nike to hire an upper-middle-class black executive from another company to be a vice president at Nike, or to give Vernon Jordan another seat on a corporate board?