Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr. and Economic Equality
As we celebrated Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life yesterday, in part, we acknowledged his fortitude; his fight for justice, civil rights, and economic equality; his leadership through boycotts, marches, and protests; and the lasting impression his legacy has had our culture.
Yet, despite the strides this country has taken to make Dr. King’s dream a reality, many Americans still encounter instances of blatant racism, overt discrimination and oppression today. As we continue to recognize Dr. King’s legacy and contributions to the civil rights movement, how do we emulate the methods, teachings, and strategies he and countless others employed to steer the course of civil rights and economic equality today?
Let’s start by fast forwarding to last week when an H&M advertisement circulated picturing a young, black boy adorned in a t-shirt that read “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Perhaps for some, the t-shirt debacle was no big deal and just another issue sensationalized by social media. Yet, to others, the coolest monkey in the jungle tee became an insurmountable blunder the clothing retailer would not soon, if ever, forget even if the ad was attributable to no more than H&M’s unintentional wrongdoing, ignorance, failed business controls, or cultural insensitivity.
But why are people mad? In perhaps an oversimplified explanation, the ad was a reminder of the prolonged discrimination, inhumane treatment, racism, bigotry, and oppression black and brown people have faced around the globe. The ad infuriated many and left others confused as it bared resemblance to times when such words were used to dehumanize and oppress (and in some instances, is still used to evoke those same feelings today).
If history is remembered correctly, although perhaps hard to fathom in 2018, black people have historically been viewed as human-like, rather than human, and more akin to primates. So fast forward to last week and there we were unexpectedly staring at photographs of a black boy in a “coolest monkey in the jungle” t-shirt and trying to come to terms with how the clothing retailer, with teams of people and stores around the globe, could include the image in its digital media campaign.
But even if people stop wearing the brand, nothing will change, right? Not exactly. I’d like to turn your attention to the case of Tommy Hilfiger and a rather controversial issue that occurred in the 1990s. If you were around in the 1990s, you might remember Tommy Hilfiger as the “it” clothing line of the time. It was colorful; it was exciting; it was fresh. It was at one point the hottest thing in the streets, but just as quickly as it rose to acclaim (and from what I remember it became popular very quickly), word spread that the retailer’s namesake stated something like he didn’t make clothing for black people, and it was wrap. I have no idea whether Mr. Hilfiger actually made those comments or the exact words he was accused of stating. All I remember is that he allegedly expressed some type of dislike for black people and I have not worn Tommy Hilfiger since. As far as how other people felt about it, the only thing I’ve heard about Tommy is people ask what happened or mention they use to like Tommy Hilfiger clothing. Conversely, Tommy is still around today. After some corporate restructuring and market adjustments, Tommy Hilfiger survived, but it definitely took a major hit.
So, how do we apply Dr. King’s philosophy to retail, fashion, discrimination, boycott’s, and protests today? In his last speech which addressed the Memphis sanitation workers, Dr. King spoke, in part, about economics and the power of collective wealth. He surmised that although we might be poor individually, our collective wealth had the ability to make a powerful statement. With that in mind, my takeaway is that while times have changed, a lot of the underlying issues remain the same. Consequently, Dr. King’s philosophy on economic injustice is still relevant today, and being mindful about where we spend our money is one way to demand equality. As for H&M, if you’re wondering whether I think people should boycott the retailer amid what has become a public relations crisis; H&M’s acknowledgement of the issue; and several H&M apologies later: perhaps (and as H&M South African stores have been temporarily closed due to the circulation of the image, there are clearly other people who are wondering the same thing). Yet, as I ponder this question for myself, I acknowledge the decision to boycott is one for us to make individually. Conversely, what I ask those reading this, including myself, is to be more conscious of the statement we make when spending. Secondly, I ask people, not just black and brown people, but all people, to invest more in black businesses and communities to achieve economic equality, stabilization of the black economy, and create growth for black people. After all, according to Dr. King, economics has been, and must continue to be, part of the framework in the push for equality.
Lastly, I’m sure you’re wondering if supporting black businesses is sustainable? It’s difficult to change shopping preferences and habits because, of course, you like what you like. Thus, instead of making a drastic shift, how about we start by, at a minimum, being more conscious about our consumerism, how it affects our communities, and the statement we make by where we choose to spend money. I leave you with this quote from a renowned businessman, activist, and philosopher: “financial freedom is our only hope.” – Jay-Z
Thanks for reading! This post is completely different than any post I’ve written on the blog in the past. So, let me know what you think. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!