Conservatives are at odds with Nike yet again after the brand canceled a special edition of sneakers, which would have featured the 13-star “Betsy Ross” flag representing our country’s original colonies.
It made the decision after at the urging of former NFL player and social activist Colin Kaepernick, whom the company featured in a prominent ad campaign last fall. Its tagline: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
As a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Kaepernick famously knelt during the National Anthem before NFL games to protest police brutality toward African Americans.
The blowback from his protest led to him being blackballed from the NFL. And his Nike ad campaign led to some white customers calling for a boycott of the company — and even ceremoniously burning their Nike apparel.
This time around, Kaepernick reportedly raised concerns with the company that the Betsy Ross flag had been co-opted by groups espousing racist ideologies.
Conservatives around the country took to Twitter in a rage. Doug Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor, even threatened to withdraw financial incentives the state was granting the company to build a factory in Phoenix.
“We don’t need to suck up to companies that consciously denigrate our nation’s history,” Ducey said. (He apparently changed his mind after announcing the factory would create 500 jobs. “Arizona is open for business, and we welcome Nike to our state,” he tweeted.)
But many other conservatives accuse Nike of distorting the patriotic symbolism the Betsy Ross Flag carries in defining freedom and the birth of America. By articulating the significance of the flag in this way, however, they’re actually shedding light on the exact problem Kapernick highlighted.
The original 13-star flag of America represents our country’s original 13 slave-owning colonies. Whatever our patriotic sentiments today, the independence of those colonies came about from the genocide of Native Americans (whom the Declaration of Independence called “merciless savages”) and the enslavement of African Americans (whom the Constitution counted as three-fifths of a person).
Both were coded deeply into our society and economy from the beginning. By celebrating this era without also acknowledging its atrocities, we’re writing off the history of millions of Americans who are still facing marginalization to this day.
Many conservatives may deny that, or say it was a thing of the past. But, ironically, many hate groups do not. The Ku Klux Klan, for example, has often flown the flag in conjunction with the Confederate flag.
Just three years ago, the NAACP in Grand Rapids, Michigan, flagged an incident in which white high school students, whose football team was playing at a predominantly black school, showed up with a “Trump for President” banner and — what else? — the Betsy Ross flag. Cle J. Jackson, the local NAACP president, said he received many complaints that the students were inciting racial hatred.
“Celebrating flags co-opted by exclusionary movements, held next to political banners of a presidential candidate who has offended people of color and immigrants, and accompanied by chants of ‘Go home’ by some students at a majority white school to players at a predominantly African American school, are not coincidences by unaware students,” Jackson said. “They are intentional actions of intimidation and rooted in no agenda other than to insult, to injure and to incite.”
The concerns Kaepernick raised are nothing new. From the Confederate flag to the Betsy Ross flag, longtime American symbols of patriotism have been co-opted (or were arguably intended) as racist and hateful symbols. Kudos to Nike for not only including but uplifting the voice and experience of Kaepernick, whose activism represents the voices of so many in America who often go unheard.
As we continue to fight to improve race relations and eradicate inequality in America, our country’s progressive strides deserve to be acknowledged (which doesn’t require a Nike sneaker, believe it or not). But if we’re going to celebrate this great but imperfect nation, we can’t do it in a way that ignores our painful history — past and present — of exclusion and discrimination.
Treating the 13-star Betsy Ross flag as a symbol of “freedom,” when in reality it also meant the oppression or genocide of millions, fails that test.
White supremacist groups get it. Why don’t other conservatives?
Jessicah Pierre is the inequality media specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.
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