Like the Nike Yeezy I & II, the hype surrounding a pair of Kanye West shoes has arguably surpassed the anticipation for Air Jordan releases. The Grammy award-winning artist did an interview with Ryan Seacrest were he promised he was “going to make sure everyone gets Yeezys.” That is either is a Kanye-sized ambition, modest embellishment, or just flat out unrealistic, seeing as the initial rollout for the shoes will be 9,000 pairs at $350 a pop.
Seeing the whopping price tag of the new Yeezy’s has raised social media debates about American materialism in a broad context, but also specifically within lower-income communities. A few classmates and I had a debate about people from poor neighborhoods being materialistic, instead of investing in better housing, putting them in tutoring or after-school programs, etc.They felt it was inexcusable. How could you buy you child Air Jordans when you have no car? Why do you get your child a stack of books instead of a smart phone? The inability of the parent(s) to make this decision is a clear moral failing.
But to me, these choices are only clear cut to people outside of those socio-economic situations. When a single mother on the south side of Chicago buys her kids the new Yeezys instead of books, the shoes aren’t just “shoes”. A nice pair of kicks is social capital. It allow kids to fit in, it’s a distraction from their socioeconomic situation, and many other things you or I may not understand. It’s no different than poor folk in the South and Appalachian country buying their kid a hunting rifle for Christmas, or working overtime to buy a new pickup truck instead of moving out of their trailer home. It’s the same as the thousands of legitimately middle class Americans families whose X-Box library dwarfs their book-shelf.
People do what they can within the conditions they are in, and sometimes they make unwise decisions. But if you aren’t from a certain economic background, you’ll strain to make a moralistic judgment about things you don’t fully understand. If I rather call someone a bad parent than to explain how a James Baldwin book will help their child (in tangible terms, not overly conceptual terms) more than the new Yeezys, then really, I’m just interested in shaming and otherizing, not helping.
The root of this debate is buried in the premise that upward mobility is obtained through education and delayed gratification. While this is partly true on many levels, it is not the whole story. It assumes this solution is an obvious and moral choice, and if poor people don’t understand this, their poverty stems from decayed values or stupidity (which feeds into the classist notions that you have more money because you are a better person).
But shaming is an exercise in instant gratification, so ironically, we fail in the lesson we are trying to teach as we are trying to teach it. It also dismisses systematic inequalities and generational wealth or poverty. For many of us, a huge reason we are middle class is because our parents were (a privilege we often overlook in order to keep our self-serving “I did it all by myself” self-image).
To make keep these conversations strictly in the realm good or bad parenting also ignores very basic human psychology. Let’s say you’re a teacher in poor community, and I’m a twelve year old child who walks in class wearing the new Jordan 11s, fresh out the box. If you say my momma is a bad mother for buying me the shoes, whether you are right or not (and you may even be right) You Just Insulted My Mother.
At that point, I don’t want to hear any else you have to say, and in fact, I may even rebel against everything you represent (because accepting who you are and what you said would reject who I am). Your “tough love” backfired, and while you surely would have taken full credit if my mother followed your advice, you assume zero responsibility for my rebellion. What is moral high-ground if it used in the service of condescension?
I’m not saying all this to advocate spending half your paycheck on some shoes, and it’s safe to surmise Kanye won’t go hungry if you do buy his new kicks. But it’s a real challenge for the privileged of this country to stop thinking we can shame the poor into the middle class. I’m not entreating you to respect these decisions or change your mind about the “wrongness” of them. But I would like you to simply understand where these people are coming from.
We need more educators to tell youth “you can be / do/ have ABC if you do XYZ” and give positive reinforcement, not “you suck because your parents suck” chastisement. We need more people who understand the struggles of low-income Americans, but who can (with respect, humility, and patience) explain why delayed gratification is the better route. We need to meet people where they are, in a spirit of horizontal solidarity, not the apathetic paternalism under the guise of tough love.
But I hopefully we can all agree on this: $350 though?…..BRUH