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The Corporate Takeover of Black History Month

by R. Anthony Arnold
Edited by Francine Dash
February 2022

I like the idea of Black History Month (BHM). Black Americans have made many remarkable contributions to America, and those contributions are all the more amazing due to our history here, in a place that routinely hasn’t loved us back. Because of this, I see nothing wrong with the idea of taking time to understand that history, to acknowledge the pain and celebrate the joy, to place it all in the proper context, and to try to learn from that history, so that we may guide our collective future actions.

Perhaps that was what BHM was meant to be, upon its inception; but that’s not what it is, nor what it has become, today.

Instead of a month dedicated to learning, reflection, and growth, we have a month largely co-opted by corporations, who use it as a chance to clean-up their reputations and promote their “Black” product lines.

Let’s take Nike, for example.

Nike, who profits spectacularly off the labor of Black athletes, has been acknowledging BHM for decades now. Looking at their recent ads, you may have noticed the slick way they take the concerns and issues of those Black athletes and fold them into their high-gloss campaigns.

Take their Emmy award-winning commercial with Colin Kaepernick, for instance, which featured the line, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Whatever other images the commercial featured, it was the one of Kaepernick, with his afro, that was meant to catch the eye and embody the message and remind us of the sacrifice Kaepernick made in his struggle against the NFL. And then, just like that, Nike used the narrative of Kaepernick’s struggle to sell some “Black feel-good” with a Nike logo on it to Black people.

But, of course, that’s not how Nike packages it.

Nike’s website reads: “It’s about advocacy and action, listening to Black athletes and using the platform sport creates to drive meaningful change. Learn more about how Nike is investing in the Black community and working to level the playing field for all.”

But the evidence shows that the “level playing field for all” may not mean what we think it does.

Let’s go back a little bit. In a 1997 New York Times article titled “Nike Shoe Plant in Vietnam Is Called Unsafe for Workers”, Nike was outed for exploiting it’s employees:

“The report also said that employees at the site, which is owned and operated by a Korean subcontractor [per Nike], were forced to work 65 hours a week, far more than Vietnamese law allows, for $10 a week.”

And, presently, if you Google “Nike and Uighurs”, then you’ll find how Nike has profited from the slave labor of Uighurs in China, who have even been used to pick cotton, the same cash crop that Black Americans were enslaved for, bled for, and died for; and is the same plant being used to justify the enslavement of a different group of people, in the year 2022.

This is not a “level playing field for all”; and this is from a company that in fiscal year 2021 reported a net income of $5.7 billion dollars.

Now, I’m not saying you have to stop buying Nikes. Everyone needs shoes, and you are a free and rational human, to the extent that we all are. Your buying decisions don’t all have to be grounded in morality. I promise not to judge you for buying that much needed Nike tracksuit.

But, at a minimum, we shouldn’t allow some of the most broken and morally bankrupt corporations on earth to use our social justice causes to launder their reputations. Nike has chosen to use slavery. Because of this, it seems reasonable to ask them to step aside when discussing BHM, considering our own past with that very institution.

Nike, on a larger scale, represents what the month has become. Empty corporate gestures, special shopping sections, dedicated apparel lines, a deluge of emails and everyone letting you know that “Yes, our brand cares deeply about BHM. Please browse our wares.”

Everyone from Nike to Bath and Body Works feels the need to get in on the action, in a desperate scramble to extract a little more money from us.

The tragedy in all of this is that Black people have, historically, benefited very little from either these gestures, or from the companies making them. And so we have a situation where corporations, who exist for the exclusive purpose of self-enrichment, are further enriching themselves, by co-opting a month set aside for one of the groups they’ve most taken advantage of.

When Nike, and other corporations, are allowed to not just get away with their behavior, but further, to profit from the causes that should stand directly opposed to it, it weakens those causes. If BHM or ‘Black Lives Matter’ is to mean anything, to accomplish anything, it must stand in opposition to companies like Nike; or at the very least, call them to task.

If Kaepernick is to fulfill his stated goals, then he must decouple himself from a company with a history of enslaving a people.

If any corporation wants to join in the important work of social justice by claiming to be a supporter of BHM, they must show their work. BHM should be a time where corporations are asked to open their (financial and historical) books, and show that their efforts match those promises on their website, to “level the playing field”, so that we can judge them not on their words, but on their deeds – and not just for the month of February.

I wouldn’t prescribe this as the answer to the problem of BHM being hijacked by profiteers seeking to increase their market share; but this may be the start we need to reclaim BHM as a time to honor the history left out of the history books about Black people and their many contributions to this United States.