The Racial Divide on ... Sneakers

What the history of footwear reveals about a cultural divide -- and the appropriation of African American style.

Everybody wears them sometimes: to run, to bum around the house, to move furniture. Some people wear them as a fashion statement. Others have been killed for them.

There have been murders over Air Jordans in black communities for years -- yes, Air Jordans in particular. Sneaker-related violence is so infamous among African Americans that in December 2011, when Nike introduced an update to that model, a widespread hoax on the Internet had it that an 18-year-old named Tyreek Amir Jacobs was murdered while shopping for a pair.

Meanwhile, mostly white hipsters, rockers, and other subculture types perennially buy new Converse every fall. It's comparatively rare to see them in Jordans or Dunks, and it's virtually unheard of that they're subject to sneaker-related violence. What accounts for the contrast?

Jordans and Chucks come from the same originary sneaker, a canvas plimsoll from the mid-19th century. Both are named after basketball stars (one black, one white, we might note). So why is the former Jay-Z and the latter Dylan? How did the first become associated with black street culture and the second with white-dominated hipsterism? And what happens when said mostly-white hipsters decide they want to wear dunks too -- as they did in the mid-2000s, for about 10 minutes?

Let's run down the history. The sneaker began life in the 19th century as a multipurpose rubber-soled casual shoe designed for activities like playing croquet and beach walks. (The performance shoe of the 19th century was the work-boot, not the sneaker.) The name first appeared around mid-century. But wasn't until sports like basketball developed that the sneaker found its 20th century athletic vocation. And its marketing developed along with the sport.

Chuck Taylor All-Stars -- for decades now a favorite of guitar-playing, tousle-haired old souls -- began its life in the early 20th century as a basketball sneaker, if a relatively low-tech one. And Taylor became the first known basketball player to make the transition from sneaker-wearer to sneaker salesman. He had been a high school player who wore Converse on the court -- they'd already been around for a few years -- and sought a job as a shoe salesman upon graduation. By the end of his career, he had played basketball for the Celtics, run college and pro clinics, and (yes, at the same time) acted as the first celebrity endorser (and a travelling salesman) for the sneakers that had by then been renamed after him.

The Taylor sneaker crusade worked. Through the 1960s, basically everyone wore All-Stars on the court. They became popular off the court, too, particularly as a symbol of youth and youth rebellion. James Dean favored the Jack Purcell, a style similar to the All-Star (Converse bought it in the 1970s). And high-top Chucks became an unofficial shoe of a number of rock subcultures around the time the basketball players themselves began to move on from the simple canvas sneaker. The Ramones wore them on album covers. All this tacit (and free) quasi-endorsement gave the shoe a (white) counterculture cachet that has not quite burned off yet.

Meanwhile, the design of the to-the-purpose basketball shoe went in a different direction, and took young men, particularly young black men, with it. The black connection to basketball dates back to the turn of the 20th century. Like baseball, the relatively young sport became associated with racial uplift, and basketball teams formed at historically black colleges even before the World War I. The first black professional teams -- the Globetrotters and Renaissance in New York -- emerged in the 1920s. When the sport began to integrate in the 1950s, the legacy of these teams, along with the pioneering work of a few legendary black college players and coaches, formed the basis of the coming black domination of basketball. By the end of the 1960s, the majority of the players in the NBA were black.

It so happens that this coincided with a radical shift in the basketball sneaker market. Leather footwear entered the market in the 1960s, marking the beginning of the end for All-Stars as a basketball shoe. Nike and Puma entered the game in the 1970s, and marketing to non-athletes soon accelerated. The sneaker companies figured out that by offering distinct models and linking their shoes to well-liked players, they could radically expand sales. The idea started with "signature" shoes for a handful of players, and took off from there. It was the old celebrity endorsement, but better, because it implied a link between the shoe and the athlete's performance.

The new, more elaborate basketball sneakers had practical appeal. They had masculine appeal. And they had, already, black cultural appeal, since so many of the players were black. The latter two deepened as sneakers became embedded in a nascent rap culture. In 1986, Run-DMC inaugurated a long tradition of rap songs about sneakers with an ode to the Adidas Superstar, a shell-top sneaker worn at one point in the 70s by around 75 percent of basketball players. For years, the rap group had worn Superstars at their concerts, unlaced and with the tongues pulled out -- a look inspired by prison footwear.

The footwear industry hit gold. The natural alignment of black youth culture heroes led right to a hungry sneaker market. Adidas signed Run-DMC to a promotional deal. Nike marketed its Air Jordans -- first released in 1985 -- with a series of ads linking the shoes directly to the basketball great's athletic prowess and to black youth culture. Some of them also starred Spike Lee, who reprised his role as Knicks-worshipping Mars Blackmon from the movie She's Gotta Have It. What do we make of this ad?

Was the Jordan campaign another stab at promoting black culture and raising the profile of African Americans through basketball? Or was it the exploitation of young black men by footwear companies, both as icons and as consumers? The answer probably falls somewhere in the middle. In an essay from the mid-90s, Michael Eric Dyson runs down the associations that Michael Jordan had at the time for men in the black community -- both as a black male icon and as an object of veneration in the broader culture:

Basketball is the metaphoric center of black juvenile culture, a major means by which even temporary forms of cultural and personal transcendence of personal limits are experienced. Michael Jordan is at the center of this black athletic culture, the supreme symbol of black cultural creativity in a society of diminishing tolerance for the black youth whose fascination with Jordan has helped sustain him. But Jordan is also the iconic fixture of broader segments of American society, who see in him the ideal figure: a black man of extraordinary genius on the court and before the cameras, who by virtue of his magical skills and godlike talents symbolizes the meaning of human possibility, while refusing to root it in the specific forms of culture and race in which it must inevitably make sense or fade to ultimate irrelevance.

The Air Jordan, in this analysis, is a sacrament of sorts, or at least a particularly strong synecdoche. This sneaker is the body (and the athletic talent, and the self- and net worth) of Jordan. He who wears the sneakers can Be Like Mike. It was a myth partly invented to sell sneakers to young black men -- and, Dyson argues, to exploit a black cultural icon for commercial purposes:

The sneaker reflects at once the projection and stylization of black urban realities linked in our contemporary historical moment to rap culture and the underground political economy of crack, and reigns as the universal icon for the culture of consumption. The sneaker symbolizes the ingenious manner in which black cultural nuances of cool, hip, and chic have influenced the broader American cultural landscape. It was black street culture that influenced sneaker companies' aggressive invasion of the black juvenile market.

This is how "sneaker culture" became associated with young black men, even though young black men are far from the only ones to wear sneakers.

All this time -- as basketball took dunks in one direction -- white kids had their own sneakers. The Chuck Taylors of the white hipster continued on, but the white-dominated skate culture of the 80s and 90s brought a new kind of sneaker to parking lots and stair railings. The skate shoe had a thick sole, good for gripping the surface of a board. Sometimes it slipped onto the foot, the way Vans do; sometimes it laced up, with elaborate padding and an ankle guard. Like Jordans, it was about athletic performance and cultural performance in equal measure, frequently accompanied as it was by lank sun-blond hair and a Cali drawl.

But it operated in a totally different economy from Jordans. As with Chucks, there are few or no limits placed on the supply of skate shoes. A store might run out of the model you want, if you favor a more elaborate one -- but there's nothing like the artificial pressure sneaker companies put on today's basketball sneaker market. Ultra-limited editions, rare materials, underground hype: All these elements of that market -- a market primarily targeting black youth -- are designed to create a frenzy. They push prices high.

By contrast, part of the beauty of Chucks or Vans is in their very disposability, their relatively low cost, and -- by extension -- their vague aura of bohemianism and authenticity. All-Stars say, "I don't need to differentiate myself with my shoes, because my personality does that for me." It's a lie, of course, but one that retains some persuasive power.

We step onto rubber soles and become Michael Jordan, or Joey Ramone. But there's a difference between the two.

In New York, over the same period, the cultures mingled to an extent, and a leading edge of trend-conscious white people started to maybe think dunks were a good idea. Inevitably, this meant that -- by 2003 or so -- basketball sneaker culture would emerge in the broader American consciousness.

Hey, New Yorkers: Remember shopping at Alife? Remember spending half a paycheck on Japanese kicks? Remember when all this had a moment and a Rainbow Coalition of self-proclaimed "sneakerheads" made it into monthly interviews in the Times? It was, one reporter said, part of the "vintage craze." Sure as ever, hip whites moved on after a couple of years. While in black youth markets, there's an endless demand for sneakers, turnover of styles drives profits in the broader market.

Here's the thing: Black kids didn't stop wearing dunks because white kids (and the media) stopped being interested in them. (Basketball shoes still do about $800 million in sales a year, and there's a reason for that.) That fact briefly resurfaced in the broader cultural consciousness in late June, when Adidas had to pull a new pair of dunks off of shelves after an outcry because they were designed with a built-in set of plastic ankle shackles.

"The attempt to commercialize and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation, where blacks were considered three-fifths human by our Constitution is offensive, appalling and insensitive," the Reverend Jesse Jackson said in a statement on his website. He continued:

For Adidas to promote the athleticism and contributions of a variety of African-American sports legends -- especially Olympic heroes Wilma Rudolph and Jesse Owens and boxing great Muhammad Ali -- and then allow such a degrading symbol of African-American history to pass through its corporate channels and move toward actual production and advertisement, is insensitive and corporately irresponsible...

This is exactly the kind of mindless commercialism our children need less of - especially in young urban America where 55 percent unemployment, 50 percent graduation rates, drugs and violence have them chained to uncertain futures already.

While the sneaker may no longer be "the universal icon for the culture of consumption" Dyson described -- at least, not in the white imagination -- in a lot of ways, the argument about the aura of the shoe holds true. Even today, we step onto rubber soles and become Michael Jordan, or Joey Ramone. But there's a difference between the two -- and even today, it's the difference between a harmless lace-up and a paycheck-obliterating, riot-causing fetish object.

Once again, it all comes down to who companies are marketing to -- and how they choose to treat the consumer.