Corporations care about one thing: profit. They do not want to be your friend. They are not trying to make the world a better place. They are not dedicated to justice or freedom. They are only interested in making money.
From that point of view, Nike’s new advertising campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick is a smart move. However, Nike’s sponsorship of Kaepernick doesn’t mean that the company has suddenly developed that mythical entity, a corporate conscience.
For years, Nike’s image has been tainted by its history of human rights abuses. In fact, groups such as United Students Against Sweatshops and the Worker Rights Consortium have spent decades exposing the company’s poverty wages, long hours, unsafe conditions, use of child labor and other unfair and dangerous practices. When Nike factory workers around the world have tried to unionize, the company has responded by closing up shop and relocating to other countries with even weaker labor protection laws.
The Kaepernick announcement successfully diverted attention away from anti-sweatshop protests and refocused it on protests of a very different kind, as racists burn shoes and take scissors to socks. By adding the face of an internationally respected activist to its advertisements, Nike is trying to convince the very people most likely to have boycotted its products in the past to go out and buy new ones, instead.
Corporate co-optation of progressive movements is nothing new. When Mississippi workers tried to organize a union at the Nissan factory in Canton, the company cracked down and was eventually found guilty of violating the workers’ civil right to form a union. But instead of respecting workers’ rights, Nissan began showering money on organizations including the NAACP, the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Foundation and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. In exchange for the cash, these groups stayed silent about their benefactor’s union-busting behavior.
Unfortunately, Nike’s sponsorship of Kaepernick dilutes his message, as well.
As Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, intersectionality means that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
The cause Kaepernick is most closely identified with — the protest of police shootings and support for the Black Lives Matter movement — cannot be divorced from supporting workers’ right to unionize or opposing sweatshop working conditions. All forms of oppression are intimately and inseparably linked together and must be fought collectively.
There is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Companies will ruthlessly seek to improve their own bottom lines at the cost of human rights. But we should at least stop patting them on the back when they try to hide their shame behind a mask of social justice.
Jaz Brisack is a senior general studies major from Oxford.