Sole Searching: Nike, Adidas, and the Black Consumer.
By Jaylin Paschal
In May of 2015, #BoycottNike and #Don'tDoIt were trending topics on Twitter, after Nike/Converse held a "Law Enforcement Appreciation Day" sale in the tension of the modern-day black struggle against police brutality. The sale was an annual deal which had been going on since 9/11 during National Police Week, however protesters considered the sale to be insensitive to the current sociopolitical issues regarding black death (re: Walter Scott and Eric Harris) at the hands of officers--an issue which deeply and regularly impacts a demographic which has all-but determined the longevity and success of a brand like Nike: African Americans.
Nike issued a safe statement in response, determined to straddle the fence of a divisive issue. "Nike has held discount days in its stores for first responders, including law enforcement and the military, since 9/11," Nike said in a statement. "Nike has no intention to offend anyone, nor to imply that we are insensitive to the serious and important issues between law enforcement and black communities in America. We care about and support efforts to continue discussions to create positive change and bring equality for everyone in our society."
Which, essentially, is a stream of buzzwords that means little to nothing in the fight against police brutality. Nike threw out a bunch of feel-good terms like "positive" and "equality," after terms which elicit patriotism such as "military" and "9/11." They're manipulating your psyche without having to lose support from either side. Cowardly, but brilliant.
Regardless, many in the black community continue this protest today, some of whom agree with the statements filmmaker Dream Hampton tweeted out that summer. "I support #BoycottNike because I'm feeling punitive. We can't punish killer cops. We can't punish the media who criminalize black corpses," she tweeted. "But Blk ppl have had a long relationship w/Nike. And Nike said F**k Your Black Lives & your demands to not be slain. They can be punished."
Over a year later, the Nike/Converse law enforcement sale continues. So does police brutality. Many have moved past the protest, not because they are no longer angry, but simply because, eventually, all this social justice was interfering with style. You're asking black people--black men--to choose between dignity and Jordan's. And I apologize for playing on the stereotype, but too often dignity and Jordan's are intertwined in our communities. It's not your shoes or your pride; you shoes are your pride.
Nike has established a loyalty that's not going anywhere, no matter how well or poorly they manage race relations. The truth of the matter is, Nike could issue an All Lives Matter statement now, and you'll still see someone in a new pair at the next march or rally. That's just the way it is. Nike knows this.
Nike's cleaned its act up, a bit, though. Earlier this year, in July, Nike Chairman and CEO Mark Parker issued the following statement:
"Nike has a long history of supporting the marginalized and those whose voice is not always heard. In many cases our athletes have eloquently argued for change and to stop the situation. Last night, at the ESPYs, we heard athletes like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul powerfully speak out about the issues facing society. Others, like Serena Williams, have also made their voices heard.
As a company, I’m proud that Nike takes a stand on issues that impact all of us, our athletes and society as a whole. And I am proud that Nike stands against discrimination in any form. We stand against bigotry. We stand for racial justice. We firmly believe the world can improve."
Read the full letter here.
A staffing and sustainability report also states that the company has diversified as black, African American, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islanders and other ethnic groups, are now 52% of their workforce.
Similarly, Adidas has developed and maintained a strong relationship with the black community. From the classic shell-topped Superstar style and tracksuits worn by Run DMC (Watch "My Adidas" by Run DMC) to design collaborations with fan favorites like Pharrell Williams and work with the Brooklyn-based creative agency Street Etiquette. They've done a better job including and collaborating with black people who aren't athletes--something black consumers have been applauding--especially through the Yeezy line and the Adidas Originals branch of the brand. And just earlier this year, Adidas celebrated Black History Month with a collection dedicated to Olympic champion Jesse Owens.
However, Adidas often finds itself in hot water as well. In 2012, an Adidas collaboration with Jeremy Scott produced a "shackle shoe," dubbed the JS Roundhouse Mids.
The response from many in the black community echoed that of Rev. Jesse Jackson's statement, "The attempt to commercialize and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation, where blacks were considered three-fifths human by our Constitution is offensive, appalling and insensitive." Civil rights groups began to organize and intended to boycott the brand.
Adidas responded by pulling the shoe, issuing the following statement: "The design of the JS Roundhouse Mid is nothing more than the designer Jeremy Scott's outrageous and unique take on fashion and has nothing to do with slavery," the statement said. "We apologize if people are offended by the design and we are withdrawing our plans to make them available in the marketplace."
So, just like Nike, Adidas is not always sensitive to the populations which are essential to their sales and continued success. And, just like Nike, they are held accountable. Adidas however, unlike Nike, made there verbal statement tangible and meaningful by deciding not to release the shoe--a testimony to "actions speak louder than words."
Of course, other brands have made moves which had significant impacts on black culture and the black community. For example, Reebok's collaboration with Kendrick Lamar was an indirect stance against gang violence. Some praised the brand's willingness to tackle a tough issue which disproportionately impacts poorer, minority communities. Others were upset, arguing that Reebok was profiting off of a concept that would never be implemented where it mattered--in these poorer, minority communities.
Although the tensions between black consumers and sneaker brands may thin and thicken, sneaker culture will always be nearly synonymous with black culture. It's been an integral part of our style traditions, even as trends have cycled through the mainstream. As our trends cycle, evolve, and change, there's little to no doubt that one of our favorite shoe manufacturers will launch another controversial sale or design a tasteless sneaker. We can only hope that these manufacturers' responses will be the kind which are supported by customer-respecting action, rather than those which ignore our outcries and take our dollars for granted.