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Shoes, Diplomas, and the American Dream

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images for Nike, via ABC News. Click on photo to get to source page.)

The media is abuzz with reports of Nike’s fall release of the LeBron X. Not surprisingly, the widespread commentary doesn’t focus on production conditions or even the technological components of the shoe, but instead on the cost of the shoes. According to The Wall Street Journal, the LeBron X would retail for a whopping $315 dollars; subsequent reports noted that Nike would market the model with all the hi-tech bells and whistles for only $290, with a basic model costing around $180. Pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a shoe (not just laces and “leather”), the LeBron X will include Nike’s + technology, which allows athletes to measure vertical leap, activity, and otherwise assess basketball progress.

Rumors of a $315 shoe led commentators to wax sociological, using the moment to lament the values and cultural priorities of the nation. More specifically, these sociological impersonators lamented the warped values of the poor, of inner-city residents, and of youth—blacks—who would probably flock to stores to purchase the shoes. “The lust for expensive LeBron X sneaker signals a bigger problem,” writes Daryl E. Owens, a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel.  Whether linking it to warped priorities or reviving memories of black youths murdering each other for expensive shoes in the 90s (and more recently), Owens points to the dangers of consumption from certain communities: “For too many, the problem is a malignant mutated strain of conspicuous consumption, crossed with hardship and low self-esteem.” Greg Doyel of CBS Sports also objected that “LeBron is trading on the most vulnerable part of his fan base: their self-image.”

Imagining black youth as lacking values, self-esteem, and agency, Doyel and company see the shoes—and not poverty, job and housing discrimination, the prison-industrial complex, divestment in public education, etc.—as the destructive influence on the future of this generation. In other words, the allure of these shoes, and the desire to get one’s hands on them at any cost, is the explanation for persistent inequality. Painting a picture of black youth rioting and killing for these shoes, of a community lacking values, these commentators play on the worst kind of stereotypes and misinformation.

Yet it seems clear that Nike does have a message to market. The company is selling high-school and college athletes the prospect of not just a career but also a future. As with higher education as a whole, this is a message directed at the middle-class—at suburban whites rather than blacks. The LeBron X provides the electronic wizardry for student athletes to better their game. These shoes are imagined as yet another device or investment in a path toward the American dream. Akin to private coaches, the best equipment, nutritionists, private traveling teams, and other financial burdens, the shoes are yet another example of how sports achievement is tied to consumption and investment, to privilege. Akin to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree from an elite college, tens of thousands on private high schools or preschools because they are pipelines to the American dream. The shoe itself—and the reaction—is a metaphor for what is happening to higher education.

I wonder where these same critics stand regarding American Girl dolls, iPads, thousand-dollar Manolo Blahniks? The discussion of the LeBron X uses the shoes to focus on blackness as the problem. If black youth are too busy waiting in lines for overpriced shoes, should the public be concerned about how illusive the dream of higher education is for them? What is missing from this discussion is the message these youths get: Get the shoes and you will become a member of the middle class. It is the same message told to middle-class (white) youth about higher education, which like the shoes, are increasingly inaccessible to working-class families and the working poor.

All of this leaves me wondering, is the staggering price of these shoes any more staggering than tuition costs throughout the nation? The price of the shoes and the rising cost of tuition are not the source of problems; they are indicators of systemic failure. 

Buying into the American dream and what the college experience is coming to symbolize, the next generation is mortgaging its future for the prospects of a middle-class lifestyle.  Selling the idea of college, its associated lifestyle of parties, fancy recreation centers, and posh dormitories, higher education, like Nike, is too often investing in the bells and whistles—the swag factor—rather than education itself or the production of knowledge, learning, and teaching. The increased costs don’t result in a better product but rather an aesthetically more appealing experience. Worse yet, the increased costs are sold as necessary and unavoidable, an obligatory investment in the path to financial security.

The allure is the lifestyle and the prospect of the American dream. Whether a one-time payment to a shoe company or yearly tuition payments, many people, especially those with financial privilege, are willing to invest—to bet—on the future because of the seductive allure of the American dream.

While it is easy to mock the consumption of shoes as wasteful and materialistic, it is important to understand the context and how getting the newest kicks, whether buying shoes or sending our children off to the best colleges, are about imagining a best future for them and ourselves. And that, increasingly, both are being reserved for middle-class, particularly white suburban, youth. Meanwhile the pipeline to America’s prisons is one littered with black and Latino youth left behind.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender & race studies at Washington State University.

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