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When Sneakers and Race Collide

To Jeremy Scott, the rebel designer from Los Angeles, the plastic shackles that he designed for a pair of orange-and-purple Adidas sneakers were inspired by a toy monster from the 1980s.

But to critics like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the sneakers looked like “slave shoes.”

“The attempt to commercialize and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation, where blacks were considered three-fifths human by our Constitution, is offensive, appalling and insensitive,” Mr. Jackson said in a statement Monday.

Hours after that statement was released, Adidas said it was canceling the $350 shoe, the JS Roundhouse Mid.

News of the cancellation prompted widespread coverage, with plenty of finger wagging. “The shoe design appears to glorify so-called ‘thug wear,’ ” said Mary Mitchell, a columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times, who added, “The JS Roundhouse Mid shoe exploits the same ignorance that made showing one’s underwear in public a fashion trend when it really is an assault on public decency.”

But is it racist? In addition to the condemnations, images of the sneaker (which were posted on Adidas’s Facebook page last Thursday) received more than 38,000 likes through Wednesday, and many of the 4,300-plus comments were positive.

“They’re cool shoes, and some people might get offended, but that was in the past,” one commentator wrote.

In a statement, Adidas said, “We apologize if people are offended by the design” and noted that Mr. Scott’s previous designs for the brand had included panda heads and Mickey Mouse. The shackle design is “nothing more than the designer Jeremy Scott’s outrageous and unique take on fashion and has nothing to do with slavery.”

Mr. Scott did not respond to a request for comment, but he defended his design on Twitter, where he posted a photo of what he indicated was the shoe’s true inspiration: a stuffed toy animal called My Pet Monster with nearly identical orange shackles. “My work has always been inspired by cartoons, toys & my childhood,” he wrote.

Among the fashion cognoscenti, Mr. Scott is known for his outlandish club-kid look, and has dressed celebrities like Katy Perry, Lady Gagaand Nicki Minaj. Though he owns his own label, Mr. Scott also collaborates with mainstream labels like Adidas, Swatch and Longchamp that want a pop of color. “People don’t want quiet fashion from me,” he said in a New York Times interview last year. “They want the whole nine yards.”

Some fashion blogs and media outlets have rushed to Mr. Scott’s defense. “Jeremy Scott is not racist,” Foster Kamer wrote for The New York Observer. “He just enjoys ’90s kids cartoons.”

The Styleite contributor Rachel Tension also defended Mr. Scott, saying that critics often see “racism where racism isn’t necessarily hanging around.”

Still, fashion is certainly not insulated from charges of racism. Last August, Vogue Italia published an article entitled “Slave Earrings,” citing “the decorative traditions of the women of color who were brought to the southern United States during the slave trade.” Editors quickly blamed it on a bad translation; the text accompanying the online slide show was removed, its headline replaced with “Ethnic Earrings.”

Adidas might have tempered the criticism if it had better acknowledged the misunderstanding instead of merely invoking Mr. Scott’s “outrageous and unique” style, said Monica L. Miller, an associate English professor at Barnard College and author of “Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity.”

Though the design’s offensiveness was most likely unintentional, it was still “shortsighted,” Dr. Miller said. “This is one of the legacies of living in a post-slavery and post-colonial world,” she added. “Talking about these moments honestly and openly will be the only way to reduce them in the future.”