Like many young brothers growing up in the 1990s, I had a serious love affair with Jordans. I can recall getting my first pair (the IV’s for my sneaker heads) and wearing them sparingly, jumping over every puddle, and feeling like MJ himself when I stepped on the court with them (too bad my skills were more like Sam Bowie’s). My adolescent fascination with sneakers was at first looked upon strangely by my family and then frowned upon as news reports of young people being robbed or worse for the big-ticket shoes began to circulate. Since the 1980s there has been concern about violence, the high price of Jordans, and Black youth (and now adult) obsession with the shoes. While the sneaker madness may seem like an area for special concern, in reality, it’s hardly a unique expression of the all-too-familiar American consumerism.
Late last year, Nike reissued one of its most sought after shoes: the Concord Jordans. It sparked nationwide pandemonium with long lines, multiple incidents involving police, and selected violence. The morning following their release, social media went crazy over the death of Baltimore teen Tyreek Amir Jacobs, who was said to have been murdered over the shoes. Of course, there was an outcry over how Black folks have got to do better, how we have lost our collective minds. Later, it revealed that there is no Tyreek and that the entire thing was a hoax .Killing is wrong. Killing someone over shoes is wrong. Making up stories about killing someone over shoes may be even worse! Sadly, the Tyreek Amir Jacobs story is just one in a long line of stories associating black consumerism, social irresponsibility, and violence.
While there was violence that occurred at the release of the Concords, there wasn’t more violence than a typical Black Friday. However, the American media and many of us were quick to recycle a narrative about Black violence. For all, this fast-paced association is steeped in deep stereotypes of Black deviant behavior and social irresponsibility that suggest Black folks can’t delay gratification and are prone to hurt each other for what we want. Black people are no more wrapped into consumerism and violence than any other group, but we do receive an unfair amount of scrutiny from media—both non-Black and Black sources. While I think it is fair game to critique what we chose to invest in or do not invest in, it’s unfair for that critique to exist without identifying the roles of capitalism and American culture that all races contend with.
My own love affair with Jordans was severely challenged as I learned more about their production. A shoe that costs us over a hundred dollars in the United States costs Nike about 20 dollars to make overseas. While the low manufacturing costs aren’t exactly surprising, the locations and labor conditions of the shoe factories gave me pause. Decades back, Nike (like many corporations) gave up its US factories and jobs, opting to subcontract in places like Indonesia with unsafe conditions, insanely low wages and egregious human rights abuses. Despite decades of activism, workers in Tangerang, Indonesia are paid 1.285.000 rupies a month. That wage would need to increase over 300% in order for a worker to support him or herself on it!
When I watch our young people lining over night for shoes I don’t wonder why they are there; I understand the allure all too well. Instead, I wonder about the millions of manufacturing jobs that Black people used to occupy that have disappeared. I wonder about the health of the families overseas who cannot even afford clean drinking water despite laboring over those shoes for countless hours. And I am saddened by the irony of poor Black kids lusting after sneakers made by poor Brown kids who could never afford a pair.
We must address our issues with materialism, employment and community instead of simply attacking young people for their love of shoes. In truth, we are only seeing our children taking their cues from us. When the inevitable frenzy follows the next big Jordan re-release, instead of lecturing young people on what they should value…how about we ask them “when was the last time you got this excited about a family member graduating college? A new book release? A community service project?” But first, we must ask ourselves those same questions. We can’t begrudge our sneaker-obsessed kids if we’re more concerned about a new purse or suit than we are about what’s happening on our streets. We cannot ask our kids to do more than what we have taught them to do.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on twitter at @dumilewis or on the web at www.professorlewis.com