Jordan, Marbury, and the Global Retail Industry

JordansMy daughter was recently gifted her first, and probably her last, pair of Jordans. Though I would have preferred her to opt for something different, you know like Adidas or K Swiss, my fashion forward five year old persisted: “Mommy, these are purple, though.” So we went with the purple Jordans because to a five year old girl, purple really matters.

But trust when I say that my anxiety rose a little bit as we purchased them. Ok, my anxiety rose a lot. While Jordans may simply be an expensive shoe to some people, for blacks they have long been a much coveted after status symbol. And like many other status symbols, such as the once popular Starter Jackets, they have been coveted to the point of violence.

Had it been 1995 instead of 2015 and we lived in my old hood in Milwaukee instead of in Roseville, I would have made a different choice and exercised my parental muscles a little more. I would have made a different choice because I would not have wanted my daughter to be targeted just because of the kind of shoes she wore on her feet. Spanning decades, countless numbers of men, women, and children have lost their lives because of this shoe – countless, because I don’t think anyone is tracking. In any case, growing up in the hood, you didn’t need a statistic to tell you what you already knew to be true – that we were losing our lives and taking that of others over temporal, material things. I still remember the Family Matters episode that tried to raise awareness over this issue.

Knowing this, I very much appreciate NBA legend and current Chinese Basketball Association star Stephon Marbury calling out former NBA star Michael Jordan for his role in all of this. In a series of tweets sent over the weekend, Marbury criticized Jordan for robbing the hood of people and money over the years. However, as Marbury won me over in one tweet, he lost me in the next, as he claimed that Jordan’s shoes cost the same to make as his own – $5 apparently – and yet, Jordan is charging $200 and he is only charging $15. Before we rush to canonize Marbury over his seemingly sainthood, hold on just a second: both of the shoes are being made in China.

Now isn’t that ironic – ‘cue Alanis Morissette!’ Or at least a little hypocritical. While Marbury condemns Jordan for exploiting the hood, is he not doing the same thing to workers in China? The global retail industry is notorious for giving workers very little pay, forcing them to work long hours, and under deplorable working conditions. In China itself, conditions in some factories are so horrid that workers are exposed to toxic chemicals that can cause severe neurological damage. I sure hope Marbury’s shoes are not being made in factories like these but chances are great that they are. Global retail factories, due to an insatiable demand in developed nations, are forced to bid low and produce high, which quickly reduces the prospect of having a safe work environment. Indeed, when profit is the bottom line, safety is not even on the table as an issue to be considered.

Just because Marbury chooses to only charge $15 for his shoes instead of $200 doesn’t exonerate him from his own participation in global labor exploitation. But we ourselves are also culpable here. The success of big retailers such as WalMart and Amazon prove that a core American value is buying as much as you can for as cheaply as you can. Shopping days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday thrive because getting a deal is more important to us as than the turkey and dressing we just ate. Much of the merchandise that fills our carts and that now clutters our homes – clothes, shoes, and electronics alike – are made in similar factories as Marbury’s wonderful shoes. Truth be told, it is our collective spending habits that create a global system that perpetuates injustice.

Many of us know this, but when we talk about justice we simply do not want to go there fearing the affect change in this area would like have on our wallets – and our lifestyles for that matter. Too many of us benefit from an oppressive retail industry and that alone inhibits us from taking to the streets in protest and advocating for policy change. But the reality is, we won’t have justice, in the hood or anywhere else, until we connect the dots and understand how these systems of oppression are not only related but feed on one another in order to make a profit. Global capitalism is destroying and killing communities all over the world; none of us will be free from its grip until we think comprehensively about its reach.

I’m sure Marbury has good intentions. We all do. But it takes more than good intentions and cheap shoes to make a meaningful impact.