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Selling Out is Not a Sacrifice

The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You show me a capitalist; I’ll show you a bloodsucker.

— Malcolm X

Has enough time elapsed that we can finally speak frankly about all of the hoopla over a cynical sneaker endorsement? OK. Then I have to ask: Have we all lost our minds?? Am I to understand that our civilization has “progressed” to the point where supposed social change is aided by the manipulative marketing of overpriced, sweatshop-produced apparel?

Remember sweatshops? Or are they just a faddish social cause from the 90s? Charles Kernaghan of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights calls the conditions created by multinational corporations like Nike, and faced by workers in their factories, “the science of exploitation.”  Those who endorse the likes of such corporations stand complicit in their evildoings.

Just because the heinous global mistreatment of garment (and other) workers has become little more than fodder for comedians in the current zeitgeist does not mean that we have solved the issue of sweatshop labor or that it is any less atrocious. On the contrary, near-slave wages, child labor, unsafe working conditions, and harassment still run rampant in factory work around the world and in the United States. A new era of slavery in the U.S. now exists in prisons. Unpaid and barely paid laborers – many of whom are black victims of racism, police brutality, and injustice, and untold numbers of whom may be innocent of their alleged crimes – recently struck to protest unjust conditions. But indeed, even outside of prison, poor working conditions and poverty wages abound. Senator Bernie Sanders just introduced the “Stop Bezos Act,” a nod to the horrific labor practices in Jeff Bezos’ Amazon fulfillment centers. The Act seeks to rectify multibillionaire corporations’ exploitation of workers, whose wages remain so low that we taxpayers are forced to make up the difference via public assistance, while the corporate capitalists soak up all of the profits.

It cannot be emphasized enough that human civilization is currently enveloped in two major catastrophic emergencies. The first is economic and social inequality, to which people of color bear the harshest burdens. The second is massive ecological degration – caused by climate change, toxic contamination, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and unfettered species extinction. Actually, people of color bear the greatest environmental burdens as well. The root causes of both catastrophes lie with corporate capitalism, which exploits people and the environment relentlessly to profit the most craven, exorbitantly wealthy members of society.

The apparel industry, like all corporate capitalist endeavors, overproduces frivolous and often unnecessary products, contributing to all of the ills described above. In addition to the unbridled inequality resulting from labor exploitation, corporate capitalism is marked by ethical, social, and environmental plunder.

If it isn’t already obvious, this talk about corporate capitalism and garment sweatshops arises from the unveiling of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s commercial for Nike. I, like many others, fully supported Kaepernick’s silent, symbolic protest against American racism and policy brutality through his “taking a knee” during the national anthem at football games, I also sympathized with his career sacrifice to stand for his beliefs. Now, I find myself seemingly stranded on a desert island in my denunciation of his disappointing turn. There is nothing heroic in endorsing a multinational corporation. There is nothing heroic in receiving millions of dollars from an extractive, exploitative company, no matter what good those millions of dollars might be used for. At best, it is a zero sum game.

Even if Kaepernick donates all of his Nike earnings toward ending police brutality and promoting racial justice in the U.S., he would just be calling it even to compensate for the exploitation of other people – mainly people of color – and natural resources stemming from the manufacture and sale of Nike products. This is not helpful towards progress in our global society nor is it helpful toward moving us away from the corporate capitalistic practices that sow the seeds of racism and police brutality in the first place.

Reading the analyses and social media chatter about Kaepernick, not just this past week but over the course of the past two years of his protest, I struggle to find much discussion of the actual causes he protested against. Instead, the right wing reframed his protest as one that trampled upon U.S. patriotism and the U.S. military. Of course, that is a completely phony, dishonest assessment, but nevertheless, very little has been said about the continued slaughtering of innocent black victims by bloodthirsty, racist police officers, and certainly less still has changed with regard to action against these injustices. And while loads of so-called liberals and progressives jump on the bandwagon of support for Kaepernick and sometimes for Nike, no one but Martin Luther King, Jr. appears to understand the connection between the evils of capitalism and the evils of militarism and racism.

As the late great Bill Hicks might have suggested, Nike went after the black solidarity dollar and the white guilt dollar. Marketers turn everything into a dollar sign.

If you think, Kaepernick’s Nike endorsement is, overall, a positive move, you might just want to watch The Corporation. As this documentary so astutely points out, the corporation is a psychopath. Enabling psychopaths is always ill-advised.

Some people defend Kaepernick and Nike with the argument that they are bringing awareness to an important cause. Raising awareness of a cause seems to be an end in and of itself nowadays, and the means by which the awareness is raised, however corrupt, remains neglected. Here are the facts: Nike does not care about black people. It does not care about ethics, or social or environmental causes. It does not care about you or me. It cares about money. If you are responding to the platitudes in Kaepernick’s ad, if the syrupy sentiments are tugging at your heartstrings, you have been manipulated by marketing. People think that Kaepernick’s Nike ad is a sincere political statement rather than a commercial. There was a time when we could discern between the two. People are projecting their own beliefs, insecurities, and rationalities onto this campaign, when in fact, it is nothing more than a contrived and disingenuous sales pitch. If you have bought Nike products to be on the right side of justice, you have been used. These emotional machinations are precisely what advertising is for. Nike’s online sales increased by 31% after it rolled out Kaepernick’s campaign. Mission accomplished.

Awareness is merely the most minuscule beginning of attempting to redress social ills. A clever, cliché-filled advertising campaign never helps anything but the bottom-line of the corporation doing the marketing. Marketing and consumerism are the problem, not the solution. Advertising is not a political act, it is a financial one. Social change never came from marketing or consumerism and it never will.

The ills of society that have been conquered thus far were not overcome by the pragmatists or the centrists who rationalized a bad action for the sake of a good action. Historically, social change resulted from the radicals and the purists, the unheralded masses who worked their asses off, fighting for ethical issues, and willingly forsaking their careers, their reputations, their financial stability, and often even their own lives for the greater good. (See people like Cynthia McKinney, the first black woman to run for President, or the heroes at Black Agenda Report, including Glen Ford, Margaret Kimberley, and Bruce Dixon, for just a few modern examples of true courage.) Justice cannot occur when one substitutes one oppression or injustice for the sake of another.

Remember selling out? Remember when making a great deal of money from a questionable organization or company was considered a bad thing? The notion of selling out seems to have been swept away with the new millennium and perhaps, according to some, with the millennial generation. However, just as sweatshops still exist, so does selling out.

Sacrificing your career for your principles is courageous; acting as a representative to a billion-dollar global corporation is simply selling out. Kaepernick spent two years as a courageous representative of social justice, now he has become a sell-out.

Perhaps we should urge him to reconsider his actions. Perhaps Kaepernick could explore more deeply the consequences of promoting corporate capitalism, which has placed humanity at a precipice both economically and ecologically. Selling out one’s integrity and bravery to that very entity is a move in the exact wrong direction. The fact that Kaepernick has taken such a misguided step is discouraging; the fact that so many support his step demonstrates just how wrongheaded we all are in our approaches to solving the many problems that ail us.

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Kristine Mattis received her PhD in Environmental Studies. As an interdisciplinary environmental scholar with a background in biology, earth system science, and policy, her research focuses on environmental risk information and science communication. Before returning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a science reporter for the U.S. Congressional Record, and as a science and health teacher. She can be reached at:  k_mattis@outlook.com.

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