There are few things more sacred than the blood of those who laid down their lives so that yours might be better. The men and women who sacrificed everything so you could experience a level of hope, optimism and opportunity they knew full well they would never see are at once humbling and worthy of pride and reflection.
Black History Month has this sacred resonance for me. It represents an annual period of reflection to remember and honor those who suffered centuries of enslavement and brutality, countless random acts of terrorism and the constant indignity of second-class citizenship in their own homeland. It also provides the opportunity to highlight those who defied the odds and bravely navigated treacherous circumstances in order to triumph.
Yet for Nike, one of the world’s most profitable multinational corporations, black history — my history — has been callously reduced to just another revenue stream. For the past decade, Nike has used this annual sacred period of remembrance as nothing more than a marketing tool to sell even more of its obscenely overpriced athletic shoes. But this year, after a period of blatant injustices and renewed resistance and activism at home, the annual release of its Black History Month line of sneakers and apparel was met with righteous indignation. Let’s hope Nike gets the message.
Nike has engaged in nothing less than the outright picking of the pockets of African-Americans for decades. It all began in the mid-1980s, when the brand teamed up with the National Basketball Association’s brightest star, Michael Jordan. The marketing psychology behind the move was brilliant: Associate the swagger and unique excellence of perhaps the greatest player to ever play the game with the imagination of millions of people, largely in urban America, who have spent the better part of their youth with unobtainable hoop dreams. And then wildly inflate the prices on those products, such that shoes made on the cheap are then sold for hundreds of dollars, instantly boosting a pair of sneakers to luxury status and making it an immediately recognizable marker between the haves and the have-nots.
The plan couldn’t have worked more perfectly.
From the very beginning, Nike’s now flagship product, Jordans, were so highly valued yet still for many so wildly financially out of reach that this now luxury sneaker became the inspiration for murder. Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing through 2014, people — primarily black people — have lost their lives over their Jordans. How ironic that a history already bathed in blood is now being “honored” by Nike through the production of shoes that have led to the spilling of even more blood.
And what has Nike done in return for the exploitative and sometimes fatal level of consumer loyalty that it has received from the black community for well over two decades? Almost nothing.
When it comes to Nike’s philanthropic work, the casual observer would be hard pressed to find any evidence of a mission that reflects the concept of giving back to those who have given it so much. While the Nike Foundation focuses the bulk of its attention on improving the lives of women and girls throughout the world — a laudable goal, indeed — its domestic work has been almost singularly focused in two states: Oregon and Oklahoma. Ironically, these two states have a particularly deep and egregious history with white supremacist activity spawning from the KKK. And of course, these states are also hardly reflective of the demographic makeup of its primary consumers.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2014, nine years after the launch of its Black History Month line of shoes and apparel, that Nike announced the creation of the Ever Higher Fund. Said to have been started by the corporation’s black employees, this initiative pledges to donate up to $1 million of the money made from the sale of its Black History Month collection to underserved communities. Yet for a company whose CEO, Mike Parker, as late 2012 took home over 30 times that amount in salary alone, a $1 million donation is next to nothing. In fact, this initiative is so devalued, it hasn’t even merited a mention on the Nike Foundation’s website, a space that proudly proclaims its other charitable work in the U.S. and around the globe.
I have a suggestion for Nike: If you really want to honor black history, start by discontinuing the practice of reducing the blood of my ancestors to a pair of overpriced, homicide-inducing athletic shoes and instead invest more of the $8 billion you earned in the past quarter alone into the community that is the single biggest driver of the obscene level of wealth you enjoy to this very day.