On the surface the NIKE Equality ad has all the elements to satisfy any corporate Black History Month quota and pass the “public woke test.” A cast of black superstars, Melina Matsoukas directing (Formation, Insecure), crisp black and white images, a resonating buzz word, and Alicia Keys singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Various publications praised the commercial including Adweek who called it a “gorgeous, powerful campaign.” But what gives the ad power? If the answer to that question sounds like diversity, well then, I am afraid that it is our attention to visibility that will continue to keep us invisible.
Equality only works if everyone starts at the same place, and though in a 90 second commercial, a group of people playing basketball can appear equal, in the real world the factors that get those players to the court are not the same or balanced. This is where equality falters as the aim for black people today. The claim for equality has run its course, and on the heels of a President that is just as much ignorant and reckless as he is a white man, we need to update our demands for equity and nothing less. Equality is treating everyone the same, but equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. What have we achieved if you only replace the book in my hand with a football, instead of teaching me how to balance both?
Had I not read the unabridged version of the message narrated by Michael B. Jordan in the commercial, I may not have been so compelled to critique the work. But there is a section that is steeped in contempt for black history and the marriage of our struggle on and off the field.
“Is this the land history promised? The field of play. Where the dream of fairness and mutual respect lives on. Where you are defined by actions not by your looks and beliefs. For too long these ideals have taken refuge inside these lines…”
Refuge inside these lines— these same lines that had a color barrier well into the 20th century; these same lines that sent death threats to players like Jackie Robinson for stepping on the field in the 40’s, and Hank Aaron for having the audacity to break Babe Ruth’s record in the 70’s; these same lines that attempted to fine WNBA players for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts instead of their warm-ups; these same lines that force Cam Newton and many black players to bury their truths under politically correct sound bites like “we’re beyond [racism];” these same lines where NFL executives condemned Colin Kaepernick and called him a ”traitor” due to his beliefs.
To proclaim “these lines” have always been an escape and a home to take shelter from oppression is a loss of touch with reality. It is a statement that only someone with privilege can make. You have to be detached from the hardships of systemic and conventional racism to even imply that ideology. For many of our youth the field of dreams is the only pursuit marketed to us as achievable and attractive. In most cities it is the only platform with resources; there are schools with better team uniforms than textbooks in the classrooms. The reality of college players leaving early for the pros is more a sign of compromise due to economical lack, and not the skills for a successful NBA career. But again equality is giving a player the chance to go to the pros, but equity is ensuring the player’s success however long the career. Corporations may be satisfied with placement and the number of black faces, but placement in a place where we have always been is futile. We need to be seen and heard in our truth.
It is misleading to project the playing field is exempt of racism. The very institution of sports is founded in racism. There is this infatuation to romanticize the sports arena, because of the number of black men and women who occupy the field— It’s like saying, America can’t be racist against black people, because black people live there. White people need to accept the fact that sports is a political space, and black athletes have to stop thinking sports is bigger than race. The institution should not receive credit for what we as a people have done. It was shaped to keep us outside those same lines. We broke the color barrier; it was not broken for us. We expanded the lanes and to this day put college recruiters on the roads to the disenfranchised inner cities of America. If not for black athletes transforming sports and expanding the market it would not be the game or industry it is today. So where is our equity?
How we arrive to be Lebron James or Serena Williams is another discussion, but the fact is we have achieved beyond the white imagination. We always have; since the days of slavery we have shown our greatness and exceeded the narrow limits placed on us. The awful consequence of this overcoming has persuaded the white conscious to think they have had a hand in our progress and together we have made things better, fair and equal. However, better, fair and equal has come when in the best interest of capitalism and corporate success, or in other words white interest. In effect leaving blacks open to compromise and exploitation as we are handed “upward mobility on rungless ladders.”
It’s the moment you reach the highest office in the land and you realize you still don’t have power, because the power is in the numbers and the numbers to this day still favor white men— white men who live in a world that promotes attitudes and ideas in their favor. It is their words that we hear even when we are the ones narrating the story. I don’t blame NIKE or the many men and women that contributed to the commercial, but I do challenge their thinking in hopes of constructing a more sound depiction of truth in their message and not just attractive wordplay. I live in a society where I cannot hang my hat on the achieved dream of the one, when many of us struggle to live in a reality imbued with prejudice and discrimination. In 2017 equality is not my rally cry, because I see now, on the tree of oppression it is low hanging fruit that the hands of systemic racism are more than willing to pick to serve my community our piece of the American pie.