PRINT October 1990



According to several prominent newspaper columnists, a cover story in Sports Illustrated, and many other high-profile media reports in print and on television, advertising directed at selling young people athletic shoes that cost more than $100 a pair has created an unprecedented epidemic of violence among our youth. Especially black youth. In fact, black youth ore the only ones mentioned, explicitly or implicitly: Niggers be killing each other over gym shoes.

In a column titled “SHADDUP, I’m SEWN’ OUT . . . SHADDUP,” Phil Mushnick of the New York Post related horror story after horror story of youths being mugged for Starter jackets and Nikes, of teenagers committing felonies to be able to support their gym-shoe habit. “It’s murder, gentlemen,” wrote Mushnick. “No rhyme, no reason, just murder. For sneakers. For jackets. Get it, Spike? Murder.”

Mushnick and copycat commentators are quick to blame Spike Lee and Michael Jordan for advertising Air Jordans by Nike, and such personalities as Byron Scott, Dominique Wilkins, Pat Riley, and Danny Ainge for pushing the Pump by Reebok.

It’s hard to see what the fuss is about. Nothing really new is going on here. People have been mugged for their clothing for aeons, viz. Joseph and his multicolored coat. A year or so ago it was fur-trimmed parkas that were precipitating muggings. A few years ago it was Cazal frames, an eyeglass frame usually favored by Henry Kissinger types, that were the catalytic commodity among inner-city youth. Twenty years ago Puerto Rican youth in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, conducted mass hat-snatchings among the Hasidim there, grabbing their black beaver toppers out of sheer fashion desperation. Fashion seems always to have had its victims and its perpetrators.

Suddenly this is big news. High school principals are banning gold chains, beepers, even gold teeth. Apparently there are high school kids in the inner cities sporting very costly luxury items, perhaps acquired with crack profits, that are seen as inflammatory in school situations.

I have no problem with high schools banning gold chains. When I was in high school I had to wear a tie and it was interesting to see what grotesque and outlandish ties could be found for the purpose. So I see nothing wrong with the idea of school uniforms. It helps create a social equality among teens, the most vulnerable of fashion victims. This is a case where getting rid of luxuries erases the most obvious disparities between the well-off and the not-so-well-off. Perhaps it serves as an aid to education by eliminating distraction.

But are kids really killing each other because Spike and Michael are selling them high-end sneakers? Could it be true? And if people are killing each other over sneakers, how far will they go for an antique Rolex, a Prada bag, an Hermes tie, a pair of Church’s of London shoes? Will wars be fought over Chanel? In fact, was World War II perhaps fought over Chanel, Schiaparelli, etc.? Junk food for thought.

Everybody wants a little luxury in life, whether it’s state-of-the-art high-tops or something large and 24 carat. It’s only human. What’s inhuman is when someone has no luxury at all in their life. Luxury is a sign of hope and belief in one’s self. Is it really surprising that someone with no status and no signs of it would commit irrational acts in desperation? And if it weren’t over sneakers, wouldn’t it be over something, anything, else?

“I don’t pick up anybody in sneakers,” a New York cabdriver once told me. What he meant was “I don’t pick up blacks,” especially black youth. Some inner-city black youths are desperadoes, but what has driven them to that? They are the victims of a racist drug war that has created millionaires and billionaires around the world. The home-boy with the gold and the pager and maybe a BMW with a phone and black-out windows may be a symbol of drug profit, but he’s just a gamin’ pawn. The real drug money is buying Scarsdale mansions and putting South Africa—dug gold in Swiss safe-deposit boxes.

Let’s not confuse the effect with the cause. Luxury is good. Poverty and discrimination are bad. Although Nike is not a black-owned company the Spike Lee Nike spots are a symbol of black success. And Air Jordans are status symbols. Don’t you think those black kids need some success, and some symbols to build status with? Purchasing is power. h’s not a crime. And neither is advertising. It’s free speech. In this case it’s being attacked because it’s blacks making the speech.

In Chicago a white Catholic priest is on trial for defacing inner-city billboards that carry black-targeted advertising. Following the lead of Reverend Calvin Butts in Harlem, Father Michael Pfleger has thrown paint on alcohol and cigarette advertising, explaining, “When you target a particular race of people with [ads for] two of the nation’s top killers, that’s genocide.”

Is a “Buy That Man a Miller” billboard genocidal when the brew’s recipient is black? Is it gendercidal because it’s a man? Should all beers and cigarette ads be targeted to the oppressor majority of white males?

Or is this really saying that we are too stupid to make our own choices about tobacco and alcohol—especially blacks? Isn’t this a missionary attitude, protecting the poor natives from the complex perils of “civilization”?

Don’t show blacks smoking. Don’t show blacks drinking. What about advertising blacks eating pork chops—what with their numbers on hypertension? And above all, don’t show them anything expensive. Who knows what they’ll do to get dem luxuries?

Does luxury mean more than enough? Or a sufficiency of extra? Aren’t luxuries necessities? Don’t poor people have a real need for luxury, a small, attainable measure of luxury? We’re not talking yachts here. We’re talking a very fly pair of high-tops.

If luxuries are outlawed, only outlaws will have luxuries.

Glenn O’Brien is a writer who lives In New York.