Category Archives: Race

The loss of life over a pair of gym shoes?

I just read about Jawaad Jabbar, a 16 year old boy from Ohio who was shot and killed after allegedly trying to steal a pair of Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes.  Apparently, the new limited edition Air Jordan’s were sold out, so Jawaad tried to steal the shoes from someone who had just purchased a pair.


Expensive Gym Shoes & Ghetto Economics

I was in the fifth grade when leather gym shoes became popular in Detroit; that was 1978. Prior to this time, if you were cool, you had a pair of white canvas high-tops. Converse All-Star “Chuck Taylor’s” were the most popular brand. If you weren’t cool, you had a pair of non-brand-name gym shoes your mother bought from the grocery store. The “no-name” shoes sucked — they had a plastic sole and couldn’t grip the basketball floor, or any floor, for that matter. When I came to school wearing a pair of cheap gym shoes one day, the other kids laughed at me.

“Greg has on slip & slides,” they yelled as I slid down the hallways. It was as if I were wearing roller skates. Teasing by other kids is what one had to endure if not wearing the most popular styles of shoes and clothes. Little did I know the chaos children in the future would have to endure for the sake of style.

I was one of the worst players on my fifth and sixth grade basketball team, but since we dominated most of our opponents, I usually played all of the third or fourth quarter of games. I needed some cool gym shoes so I could be part of the in-crowd; slip & slides just wouldn’t suffice.

I convinced my mother to buy me a pair of leather basketball shoes. The pair I wanted were white high-tops, with a baby blue leather stripe. I was ecstatic when I got them. Now I’d be just like the professional basketball players, wearing the latest and greatest gear. The girls would look at me in my skin tight, low-cut basketball shorts, and they would see my shoes — I’d be popular. The guys would see my shoes and say, “Dog, your shoes are sweet.” I would be “The Man!” Life was good.

Just as important, I had the coolest of the cool new hairstyles, a shag. Not to be confused with women’s hairstyles that shared the name, in the late 1970s, the shag was a popular hair style among urban black males. To create a shag, long hair was cut low, while leaving a rounded section of long hair near the bottom of one’s hairline. A shag typically spanned two to three inches in vertical height, and stretched the horizontal length of one’s hairline.

Soon we were about to play our archrival. I probably wouldn’t get to play in the game because they always played us close. They had this tall dude named Norton, and he was good. But we had guys on the second string who could start for most teams, so they never beat us. Yet, it didn’t matter if I played or not; I’d look sweet during warm ups and on the bench in my leather gym shoes.

But when I unveiled my leather gym shoes with the smooth baby blue stripe, Aaron, one of the best players on our team, called me a biter (i.e. a copycat). He already had a pair of the same brand of leather gym shoes, baby blue stripe and all. Damn, I could have been a trendsetter, but instead was labeled a biter. Oh the shame!

If you had a “cool” hair style and wore the latest fashions, you were “The Man.”

I wished my mother had been willing to spend more money; I would have bought a more expensive pair of leather gym shoes — ones with a white suede stripe. Then I’d be “The Man.” The only other dudes with white suede stripes on their shoes were Todd, who had a different brand, and Tony on the seventh and eighth grade team; he had some low-tops with a white suede stripe.

The next year, I bought some leather high-top gym shoes with a white suede stripe, but once again I was labeled a “biter.” Aaron beat me to the punch again. He had already upgraded to the same brand of shoes — white suede stripe and all. (The next time I try to set a trend, I’m going to call Aaron to make sure I don’t copy his style inadvertently.)

My first pair of leather gym shoes cost around $30; my second pair cost around $35. This was the late 1970s, so when adjusted for inflation, $30 shoes easily equate to a pair of $100 shoes in 2012 dollars. I broke the $40 cost barrier in the eighth grade by buying the most popular brand of leather high-top basketball shoes. They had a black leather stripe and gripped the basketball floor better than any pair of shoes I’d ever worn. They had a terry cloth insole which absorbed sweat. Because I sweat a lot, this caused my shoes to stink beyond belief.

I wore the shoes so much the stench of my feet could be smelled from across a large room. That’s when my mother threw them away, figuring such a smell couldn’t be removed merely by replacing the insoles. The era of expensive sneakers was in full swing. Today, the athletic shoe industry is a multi-billion dollar cash cow, along with various types of clothing brands.

But what’s the big deal about shoes and clothes? My father grew up wearing plain canvas Converse All Stars — fancy athletic shoes didn’t exist back then. To this day, my father has never had any problems with his feet. This, despite countless hours of playing basketball on the New York City hard courts. And if one dresses neatly, does it really matter if the clothes are made by a particular designer?

As time progressed, many popular brands of shoes and clothes emerged — a reason to spend money to keep up to date with the latest fashion trends. Or, as I like to say, a reason to spend money for the sake of spending money. And the prices of gym shoes continue to increase. It’s not uncommon now to see some sneakers priced above $300.

I remember visiting the home of a successful businessman in Detroit. His seventeen-year-old son had just returned from a sporting goods store with a new pair of expensive gym shoes. In the young man’s room, he had five stacks of shoeboxes, each seven feet high.

When the young man’s father questioned him on why he had purchased another pair of gym shoes, he said, “These are collector edition — a rare pair of shoes. They’ll be worth a lot of money someday. I’m only going to wear them a few times; then, I’ll save them for the future.”

The young man had an abundance of shoes, CDs, and DVDs in his room, but no books. It’s no wonder he was a poor student. The bigger question is why the young man’s father had not intervened earlier and prevented the purchase of so many shoes. Another question is why their home had multiple high-tech entertainment centers, but no library.

It’s not a crime to own a pair of nice athletic shoes, or an expensive pair. However, to own a portfolio of expensive shoes, if nothing else, is a poor financial decision. And to purchase shoes in hope of price appreciation is a speculative transaction at best. Sure, some rare gym shoes might sell for thousands of dollars today. However, money can be utilized more prudently on things that can provide a greater return with more certainty.

Young men have even been mugged for their gym shoes, and in some cases killed.[1] Such is the world today and a reminder to me of why young people must have priorities beyond owning material possessions, especially ones that earn no financial return. Money wasted is a potential impediment to one’s future financial success.

Rather than spend large sums of money on fashion, would it not be wiser to save and invest for one’s future? All children should learn the “Rule of 72.” This approximates how long it will take money to double at a particular rate of interest. Here’s how it works:

The number 72 divided by an interest rate, equals the approximate number of years it takes money to double at that interest rate.

Example: 72 divided by 6 equals 12 (72 ÷ 6 = 12).

Thus, it will take approximately 12 years for $100 to turn into $200 at 6% interest. Note: this does not account for inflation or tax implications (which will impact the real return).

Excerpt from The Janitor’s Sons: A True Story of Hope, Shattered Dreams, and Winning Despite Adversity (Chapter 8: Expensive Gym Shoes & Ghetto Economics) © 2012 by Gregory Collier. All Rights Reserved.

[1] See Paul Duggans, “Sneakers apparently led to killing,” The Washington Post, (January 9, 2012).


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Racial Profiling

The murder of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, is a reminder that African Americans are often the victims of racial profiling, not just by the police, but by many in society.

In the early 1990’s, I worked a grueling job at an investment bank in New York City. Often, when I took a day off or had a vacation, I would stay in New York and do things I rarely got to do because I was always working. On one such day, I sat at the Pulitzer Fountain, across the street from the Plaza Hotel at Central Park South and Fifth Avenue. As I read a book and enjoyed my day, I made an observation. New York City police were stopping black drivers and giving them tickets. Though more than 90% of the vehicles I observed were driven by whites or Hispanics, the police only stopped black drivers. By definition, this was racial profiling.

There were two white police officers parked beside the Plaza Hotel. As cars drove eastbound in gridlock traffic on 58th Street, the officers stopped some of them for what I presume was running a stop sign. Though the cars couldn’t move faster than five miles an hour, the officers aggressively issued tickets. This helped ensure the police met their quota of tickets for the month.

In the opinion of many, there is an unwritten rule that New York City police must issue a certain number of tickets. This helps produce revenue for the city and increases the paperwork of police officers, thereby helping increase overtime pay. Ultimately, this inflates a police officer’s pension benefits at retirement if the current year is part of their pensionable earnings calculation.

After observing this pattern of racial profiling, I started taking notes. At one point, two black men in a commercial van were stopped. After what appeared to be a brief argument between the men and the police officers, the men were handcuffed and placed in the back seat of the police car. I approached the police car and wrote down its license plate number and car number. Then, an officer approached me and asked me what I was doing. Without replying, I wrote down the officer’s badge number. He then boastfully said,” I’m Officer McMurray,” and pointed to his name tag.

I replied, “I’m fine-tuning my documentation so I can report you.”

Officer McMurray replied, “Do you realize what a difficult job this is? We put our life on the line every day!”

I did not respond, but kept writing notes. The police could have harassed me or possibly arrested me for some bogus charge. However, they were scared. They knew what they were doing was wrong. They also clearly saw I was not intimidated.

The police got in their vehicle and drove off with the two black men in the back seat. As I watched, it appeared they were having a discussion. Before they got to the next corner, they stopped their car and let the two black men go – they were free. The police officers then drove away. As the black men walked back to their van, they thanked me.

The most dangerous thing to be in America is not a police officer or firefighter, it’s a black man. I don’t claim to know a solution to this, nor do I accept the fact that this will always be the case. However, to force change, blacks must be vigilant in removing the target clearly placed on us by some – we can’t expect others to do it for us.

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Filed under Politics, Race

All Black Children are College Material

I recently spoke to a friend with whom I attended kindergarten through eighth grade in Detroit. I hadn’t spoken to my friend Eric for nearly 30 years. He found me on Facebook as he diligently worked to re-unite our junior high school classmates. In the course of our conversation, we spoke about the fact that during high school we were both placed in all-white environments. Such an experience was a culture shock to say the least, and quite frustrating. After living in Detroit, and attending school with almost no white students, Eric moved to Kentucky. And after one semester at an integrated high school, I moved to Oakland County, Michigan. Eric and I share two common themes: we were among a handful of black students at our respective schools and our guidance counselors told us we should not go to college – we weren’t college material.

My high school guidance counselor was a graduate of Eastern Michigan University. During a school event, the counselor advised any senior interested in attending his alma mater should visit him. He claimed he would write a letter of recommendation for any interested student. Therefore, I added EMU to my list of potential colleges. When I went to the counselor to discuss this, he told me I shouldn’t go to college. He said I was good with my hands and a vocational school would be the right choice for me.

I wonder how many middle-class, suburban white kids my counselor tried to discourage. Similar dissuasion often takes place during college and in the workplace. However, by staying focused on goals and having access to mentors and positive role models, black youth should know there is no limit to their potential. Fortunately for Eric and I, we had such mentors and role models. All black children are college material.

Needless to say, Eric graduated from the University of Michigan, earned a master’s degree at Cambridge University, and a J.D. from Columbia University. Now he is a practicing attorney and I’m confident Eric made a wise decision to attend college. I, too, graduated from college and earned a graduate degree. I also made a wise decision as my education is the foundation of my success. But in one respect my high school guidance counselor was correct; I am good with my hands. Every time I shake hands with a U.S. President, CEO of a major corporation, or use the manual shifting mode in my expensive automobile, I think about how great it is to be good with my hands.

Greg Collier pictured in his office in West Palm Beach, Florida


Filed under Education, Race