Adidas and the Truth About 'Slavery Sneakers'

Adidas "JS Roundhouse Mids"

Adidas’ planned release of its “JS Roundhouse Mids” shoes has been put on hold, but the rightful outrage continues. 

The sight of “slave shoes”---sneakers with shackles and chains---prompted widespread indignation and outrage. “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. Removing the chains from our ankles and placing them on our shoes is no progress,” writes Jesse Jackson. “For Adidas to promote the athleticism and contributions of a variety of African-American sports legends … 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.”

The shoes are yet another reminder of the efforts to sanitize and erase slavery from public consciousness.  Whether in the efforts to whitewash history through denying or minimizing the history of slavery, or turning slavery into sources of profit and pleasure, the shoes speak to an effort to reimagine slavery within White America.  Whereas the history of slavery is one of violence, bloodshed, and survival in the face of brutality, these shoes disrespect the memories and atrocities at the heart of this country.  In turning its symbols – shackles and chains – into something of trendy desire and pleasure, these shoes and its designers not only spit on this history but seek to cash in on the pain and suffering of many people.

The marketing of the shoes also disturbingly capitalize on incidences of shoe violence and media sensationalism.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “On Adidas' Facebook page, the company calls the shoe 'so hot you [will need to] lock your kicks to your ankles.’” Like those pundits, politicians, and media who sold fear by citing kids being murdered for their shoes, Adidas sees an opportunity in exaggerated stories of death.  By telling its consumers that “yes others will desperately want your shoes but not to worry, they are on lockdown,” the company is selling consumers a footwear version of LoJack.  As with the politicians and media pundits before them, Adidas is continuing a tradition of peddling and proofing off of racial fears and stereotypes.    

As the history of shoe production has been one of exploitation, abuse and “slave-like” conditions, there is sickening irony in these shoes.  Do the shackles and chains attached to the shoes mirror those that have been found on children’s feet?  Does it symbolically reflect the sweatshop conditions endured by those who produce shoes and apparel throughout the globe? As we look to Indonesia, we are able to see clear answers.  According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an organization that has documented countless atrocities, Adidas shackles its workers through exploitation and abuse:

Do the shackles and chains attached to the shoes mirror those that have been found on children’s feet? Does it symbolically reflect the sweatshop conditions endured by those who produce shoes and apparel throughout the globe?

"The facts of this case are clear: 2,800 workers, many of whom were earning as little as US $ 0.60 per hour during their employment, have been deprived of thousands of dollars in severance payments. This is money they earned in part through the production of goods that has helped to contribute to Adidas’ profits, which last year were up 18%."

A recent report from The Independent found that clothing planned to be worn by British athletes and volunteers during the 2012 Olympics is being produced for Adidas in sweatshops.  Working 65-hour per week and earning as little as $1.00 dollar an hour in 9 Indonesian factories “that have contracts to produce Olympic shoes and clothing for Adidas,” these workers endure the horrors of the global apparel industry.  Did workers that are literally and symbolically shackled produce these shoes, punctuating the profits generated from the pain and suffering resulting from shackles and chains?  Not surprising bloodstains and chaffed skin are not included in the chains that were to be sold at local shoe stores. 

Noting his “disappointed by this completely-missing-the-point coverage of the Adidas controversy,” Jay Smooth reminds us in a Facebook post about the important questions that need to be asked about the shoes and our collective response. “Can we please stop dumbing down every race-related conversation into some oversimplified & irrelevant "is he/she really a racist" debate? The question is “does the photo of the shoe that people saw last week creepily evoke slavery and imprisonment.”  It is without question, whether thinking about slavery, mass incarceration, sweatshops, and the history of violence, these shoes evoke pain and suffering and in doing disrespect, deny, and obscure the ongoing history of injustice. 

As Jay Smooth makes clear, “REGARDLESS OF ANYONE'S INTENTIONS. Intentions are not magic.”  I don’t care about Adidas’ intentions, I care about how their shoes are made, and how they continue a tradition of putting profits ahead of people and truth.