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Barbershop: Nike Recalls 'Racist' Air Max Shoe


There's another sports-related story we wanted to talk about - or at least it speaks to the fact that sports figures and companies are about more than - well, sports. We wanted to talk about that special-edition sneaker that Nike had planned to release in honor of Independence Day featuring the so-called Betsy Ross flag with 13 stars in a circle representing the 13 original colonies. According to several news outlets, beginning with The Wall Street Journal, Nike pulled the shoes after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick privately advised Nike executives to do so.

Kaepernick, of course, is the activist famous for kneeling during the national anthem during his playing days to protest police violence, which evidently ended his playing days. He's also a Nike brand ambassador. Now, it's not exactly clear what he said to Nike, but it's been reported that he noted that the flag has been adopted by some white supremacist groups, along with a Confederate flag, to celebrate a time when slavery was legal and the country was supposedly more white or white people had all the power. Nike said in a statement that it pulled the shoes based on concerns it could, quote, "unintentionally offend and detract from the nation's patriotic holiday" - unquote.

But then other people criticized that decision, including the Arizona governor, Doug Ducey, who said that Nike has, quote, "bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism" - unquote. He claimed that he would pull back support for financial incentives that were promised to Nike for opening a manufacturing plant in Arizona.

So we figured the Barbershop would be a good place to talk about all this because that's where we talk with interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. So joining us today are Alyssa Rosenberg. She's an opinion writer who covers culture for The Washington Post. She wrote about this recently. Welcome.

ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Joseph Cooper is a professor at the University of Connecticut, where his research focuses on sport, education, race and culture. Professor Cooper, welcome to you.

JOSEPH COOPER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Eugene Rabkin is the founder of StyleZeitgeist, which is a fashion blog. Eugene, welcome to you as well.


MARTIN: So let me just read something that Alyssa wrote in her piece. She said that few things are more American than a giant company's efforts to turn a profit off a patriotic emblem, then see the product flare into a cultural bonfire. Duly noted. Duly noted, Alyssa. I'm going to actually go to professor Cooper first on this because I take it you agree with Nike's decision to pull the shoes. Is that right?

COOPER: That is correct.

MARTIN: Because?

COOPER: I agree because, one, we live in a highly politicized climate. And when we think about understanding what the meaning of certain symbols historically meant and what they mean in contemporary terms, I think it's important that if we are moving towards becoming a more perfect union and respecting the positionalities of diverse groups, then we consider maybe certain symbols that we used to celebrate - i.e., the Confederate flag, i.e., the original 13 colonies flag - that symbol isn't a symbol of unity for all Americans.

And so, taking into account groups that have been historically oppressed, such as African-Americans during that time period when that flag was created, I think that it was a very appropriate gesture for Nike to pull that particular style of shoe.

MARTIN: So, Alyssa, I'm going to go to you here because, you know, unlike some people for whom, you know, Kaepernick is just the gift that keeps on giving - I mean, there are people who just are outraged by everything he does, and there are those who want to turn this into a referendum on people who love America versus the people who don't. But one of the things that interests us about your piece is you took a different tack. You were saying you're not denying that perhaps this flag has been co-opted by these white supremacist groups. The point you made is that we shouldn't be so quick to capitulate when racists try to taint symbols of our national story.

ROSENBERG: Well, and I think it's a really interesting question. At what point has something been so thoroughly co-opted that it can't return to any semblance of its original meaning? And because a couple of obscure Klan groups or some guy from Identity Evropa or some jerks at a Michigan high school football game try to use a historical symbol like the Betsy Ross flag, who gets to say they win? You know, why do jerks who want to imbue something with a new meaning that it may not necessarily have had - why do we get to say that they're right, that they get to poison this and then none of the rest of us can have it?

I mean, I think part of what was very interesting about this debate is that clearly, this is a conversation about a symbol that has happened in some quarters but has not reached a broad audience. And so I don't know that there is a consensus on whether or not the flag is tainted.

I respect anyone who says that because the symbol has been used this way, it no longer has an uncomplicated meaning. But I am really opposed to just ceding space to white supremacists simply because they touch something, therefore it's poison. Why not fight back? Why not try to have an actual conversation about who gets to decide the meaning of these things?

MARTIN: Now, Eugene, one of the reasons we called you is that - I want to mention you didn't write about this particular story, but you've been writing as a fashion blogger about images and fashion that a lot of people have found offensive, and you're saying that, you know, fashion is meant to provoke and that fashion that fails to provoke loses its power. So where do you come out on this argument, on this issue - you know, recognizing that I don't think you were born in the U.S., so perhaps the whole history of the Betsy Ross flag and all this isn't as present for you as it is for other people. But what do you think?

RABKIN: Well, first, I couldn't agree with Alyssa more. I think that we should not allow white supremacists to reclaim the symbol that is not theirs to claim in the first place, you know? there is - there are examples like that that have happened before. There's a London brand of boxing gear called Lansdale, you know, and neo-Nazis in London, in the U.K., used to wear their T-shirts because if you cover Lansdale up to a certain point with a jacket, you get to see NSDA, which was the name of Hitler's party. You know, Lansdale did not stop making clothing. You know, they put out a statement saying that we did not - you know, we do not agree with these values. And that was that, you know?

So I don't think you should allow that - these symbols to be claimed. But also, you know, for me, the bigger issues here is stifling creativity, you know? And the sneaker is a sneaker, you know? But Nike here - what happened was Nike engaged in self-censorship, you know, because we are living in a time that is so volatile, and moral outrage is stoked so easily both on the left and on the right that it produces atmosphere of self-doubt and self-censorship. And that, to me, is a real problem because fashion is a creative discipline, just like art, and it should have that freedom to provoke and to challenge people's assumptions.

MARTIN: Joseph, what do you say about that? Professor Cooper, what do you think?

COOPER: Yeah. I mean, I think there's varying views on - this isn't the first time that fashion and politics have collided. A few years ago, Gucci put out a style or image on one of their pieces of clothing that was resembling of the minstrel show, which was highly offensive to African Americans in the United States. So as opposed to viewing it as a form - and large - a large contingency of the hip-hop community boycotted Gucci and said, you know, this was culturally insensitive.

So as opposed to viewing it as censorship, I look at this has become a more democratic society whereby traditionally, certain groups - their views and perspectives on certain symbols and images have been silenced or largely marginalized. And now organizations and companies such as Nike are taking into account those voices because they understand that these constituents, these consumers, are major stakeholders for their company. And so to me, I look at it as being more culturally sensitive, more culturally inclusive as opposed to a form of censorship.

MARTIN: So, Alyssa, I'm going to go back to this question of, how do you engage with something that has been co-opted by, for example, white supremacists? Like, there's a brand of - I'm sure - I don't want to give more credence to it, but there's a brand of outerwear that a lot of kids like, and the initials are initials that some of the white supremacist groups also like because it's - it is a reference to a salute to Hitler, right? So they're not going to stop making clothes either, but then some people would rather their kids not have that - those clothes.

So what do you suggest? I know you raised a number of examples where, you know, people have used the American flag for heinous things, but other people have said, no, it's not just yours. What do you say about how to engage with something like this?

ROSENBERG: I think you have a vigorous dialogue about it, and you put it in context. I mean, the African-American lawyer who was almost stabbed by the American flag during the Boston busing protests always said that the flag wasn't tainted for him and that as long as it was used in a context where sort of positive values were raised vigorously that it could be a symbol of what America could be. And so if it's your kids, talk to your kids about why certain people feel this way, why they might end up associating themselves with something that they don't intend...


ROSENBERG: ...You know?

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now, but there's more to say because, you know, I want to ask all of you if you'd buy the shoes if they actually came back on the market, right?

RABKIN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Would you buy it? Eugene, quickly, yes or no - would you buy it?

RABKIN: Absolutely not. I don't wear sneakers.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. Well...

RABKIN: (Laughter) I'm the wrong person.

MARTIN: That's Eugene Rabkin. He's the founder of StyleZeitgeist. That's a fashion blog. Also with us, Alyssa Rosenberg, opinion writer for The Washington Post, and Joseph Cooper, professor at the University of Connecticut. Thank you all so much for talking to us.

ROSENBERG: Thanks so much.

RABKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.