25 October 2022

Kanye West and the hypocrisy of ‘woke capitalism’


Remember those halcyon days before social media when we didn’t know what our favourite ice cream brand thought of immigration? When banks didn’t tell us to get accounts elsewhere if we didn’t agree with them on the use of pronoun badges? When shaving gel companies didn’t wade in on the question of toxic masculinity?

Simply selling a brand’s products is no longer de rigeur. We now, it seems, need to know their thoughts about every geopolitical and social issue – an unhappy development described as ‘woke capitalism’ by political analyst Ross Douthat. These woke capitalist campaigns are a cheap way of getting attention with easy virtue signalling. But they are almost always insincere, divisive and can even cause a backlash against the people they are meant to be helping. 

They can also cost a company millions as Ben and Jerry’s discovered when it decided to join the boycott against the Israeli occupied territories and ended up being boycotted itself. 

German sports brand Adidas is another company which has been performatively projecting its social justice anti-racist credentials. In June 2020 it responded emotionally to the Black Lives Matter campaign saying, ‘Remaining silent is not a neutral position when people we should be standing with live in fear of police brutality due to systemic racism.’ It pledged to be better with millions of dollars of funding for black communities.

In August 2021 it piped up again, when the football team Juventus, which is sponsored by the brand, posted a tweet showing a player appearing to mock Asian people. It wrote: ‘Adidas condemns racism – whether intentional or otherwise. It has no place in sport or society.’

It can hardly be surprised by questions of its own hypocrisy, therefore, with its continued support of the controversial rapper Kanye West (also known as Ye) who has spewed out weeks of antisemitism and has also hurt many in the black community he comes from. Not only has it failed to condemn West’s hatred, but it has unveiled plans for more shoes from West’s Yeezy range and advertised for a new director for the brand which makes a whopping $1.5bn a year – between 7-10% of Adidas’s total revenues. 

It is little wonder that among his rantings Kanye boasted, in a now deleted podcast clip from a show called Drink Champs: ‘I can say antisemitic things and Adidas can’t drop me. Now what? Now what?’

The current controversy started earlier this month when West unveiled his new Balenciaga line of clothes which included a t-shirt with the words ‘White Lives Matter’ on them. When another rapper, Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs remonstrated with him, West blamed Jewish people for controlling his friend. As a result Adidas put its partnership with him ‘under review’. 

That did not stop West. Determined to offend, he alleged George Floyd – whose murder at the hands of the police in 2020 sparked the Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the world – had died from drug abuse. But it was Jewish people who he appeared to be determined to attack the most – focusing on conspiracies of Jewish power. 

On 9 October he wrote a tweet saying he was going to go ‘death con 3 on Jewish people’ – an apparent misspelling of defcon. He insisted it was not antisemitic for him to say so because ‘black people are actually Jew also’. 

He’s been barred by Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, has been dropped by his agents CAA and by Balenciaga. His solicitor has dropped him because of his refusal to apologise for his antisemitic comments. Hollywood stars have joined in with even West’s ex-wife Kim Kardashian reiterating her support for the Jewish community. The pressure is now on Adidas to do or say something. 

Adidas has finally today announced it is cutting ties with West saying: ‘Ye’s recent comments and actions have been unacceptable, hateful and dangerous, and they violate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness.’ But was this too little, too late? 

By waiting for two weeks to take action, the controversy has already had a huge impact on the company’s reputation and brought new focus to its astonishing Nazi past. The Adidas story starts with two brothers; Adolf and Rudi Dassler who pioneered the early use of spiked shoes for runners. Both joined the Nazi party in May 1933, soon after Hitler took power, and within a few years the company had grown exponentially.  

Both brothers signed their letters with the phrase ‘Heil Hitler’ and during the war the factories were converted to make munitions for the German military. After the war the two brothers split their company into two; Adolf (known as Adi) formed Adidas while Rudolf called his company Puma. The companies are now two of the biggest sports brands in the world. 

The pressure has been on for weeks with a #boycottAdidas campaign on social media and anti racism organisations demanding Adidas take action. Jewish workers at the company also spoke out with the company’s director of trade marketing Sarah Camhi saying: ‘We have dropped Adidas athletes from using steroids and being difficult to work with but are unwilling to denounce hate speech, the perpetuation of dangerous stereotypes and blatant racism by one of our top brand partners.’ 

Perhaps most importantly for the capitalist side of this woke capitalism dichotomy, the company’s stock price has dipped.

This is the time when woke capitalism was put to the test and failed. For weeks a brand which professed to condemn racism continued to endorse a racist. It is only once profit margins started to fall that the company took action. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here for brands; if you aren’t willing to adhere to your social justice proclamations, perhaps you should stick to just selling your wares. 

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Nicole Lampert is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.