One of America’s greatest icons is the Betsy Ross Flag, with the customary thirteen red and white stripes, and thirteen stars for the original thirteen states arranged in a circle on the blue field. According to our mythology, she made the first flag under George Washington’s supervision. The precise roles played by both Betsy Ross and George Washington in creating our first flag are lost to history, but nonetheless, it bears the legendary seamstress’s name and is an integral part of our history and one of our most cherished symbols. The Betsy Ross Flagg belongs to all of us—or least, it should.
Yet some are trying to demean, diminish, and erase the Betsy Ross Flag as a national symbol. Just before the 4th of July, Nike created controversy by announcing it was recalling from the market athletic shoes with the Betsy Ross Flag on them after Colin Kaepernick allegedly told the athletic apparel company that the Betsy Ross Flag was offensive. Exactly what he said is unclear. Typical of early news accounts was a report in the Chicago Tribune, which said that “Kaepernick reached out to Nike after learning they (sic) planned to release the sneaker to explain that the flag recalls an era when black people were enslaved and that it has been appropriated by white nationalist groups, a person familiar with the conversation told The Associated Press.” Later news accounts said that Kaepernick may not necessarily have meant that he himself found the Betsy Ross Flag design offensive, but was warning that others could, given that a few obscure right-wing nut groups have adopted the Betsy Ross Flag as there symbol.
Whether its Colin Kaepernick who wants to send the Betsy Ross Flag down the memory hole, or right-wing crazies who want to use it for their own nefarious purposes, Nike’s actions have given legitimacy to those who would destroy its symbolic importance by indicating it thinks it could be a hate symbol, as discussed by Jonah Goldberg in the National Review (https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/07/nike-betsy-ross-sneakers-colin-kaepernick-culture-war/). Fortunately, Nike’s actions, evidently taken on Kaepernick’s advice, whatever that was, have triggered widespread condemnation. The best commentary I’ve read was offered by Mike Rowe, the TV personality and advocate of vocational education over college for those can better cope with the former than the latter, said, in part:
“[W]e can’t deny Kaepernick’s right to speak his mind, but we shouldn’t ignore the flaws in his thinking. He has argued that the Betsy Ross flag is “racist,” because it flew at a time when slavery was legal in America. By that definition, aren’t crosses are also racist? Weren’t they on churches attended by slave-owning congregants? Why not demand their removal? What about the Bald Eagle? Wasn’t our national bird flying around when slaves were held? Why not protest it as well? What about the Great Seal? E Pluribus Unum? The Liberty Bell? It rang countless times while slavery was still the law of the land. Why not demand its removal? Kaepernick’s argument is unpersuasive, not because it’s unpopular, or unpatriotic. It’s unpersuasive because it’s completely void of logic.” His entire statement can be read at https://www.facebook.com/TheRealMikeRowe/posts/2559217937421667https://www.facebook.com/TheRealMikeRowe/posts/2559217937421667g.
But protesting Nike’s decision leaves unanswered the question, what can those who disapprove Nike’s decision actually do about it?
Nike’s mission is to make money by selling athletic apparel. It will take those actions it thinks will increase its profit, and reject those actions which it thinks will diminish its profit. And whatever one thinks of Nike’s relationship with Colin Kaepernick, Nike has nonetheless profited from it. To date, it has suffered no loss of business from its decision to withdraw the Betsy Ross Flag shoes. Nonetheless, Nike’s profit motive suggests several courses of action beyond pointing out the obvious inanity of Colin Kaepernick’s idea.
One is simply to boycott Nike products. Nike has a perfect right to make and market whatever it wants with whatever design it wants. But it has no right to expect anyone to buy its products if they don’t want to. If enough people decide to boycott Nike products, Nike’s behavior may change.
Another is to buy products from other manufacturers, especially those with the Betsy Ross Flag on them. Betsy Ross Flag t-shirts, for a starter, would seem natural for enterprising entrepreneurs. Other athletic apparel similarly adorned might also prove profitable, and the more profit made by those who market such apparel, the more Nike can learn of the folly of its ways.
But given Nike’s continued profitability, whether because of, or despite, its association with Colin Kaepernick, such economic actions may have little if any effect. Besides, the quality and convenience of buying Nike products may discourage a boycott (the Governor of Arizona, even while denouncing Nike and threatening to withhold economic aid earmarked for a new factory, was found to be wearing Nike shoes).
Nonetheless, there is one other action that can be taken by anyone so motivated: Fly the Betsy Ross Flag, or at least post Facebook memes featuring it, even if doing so fails to cut Nike’s profits by a single penny. If We the People abandon the Betsy Ross Flag to the wingnuts, refusing to use it for fear we’ll be denounced by the radical left for consorting with the radical right, then we’re as guilty as Nike in validating the judgment that it’s a hate sign and no longer the invaluable icon which has been with us since the dawn of the United States as “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” The Betsy Ross Flag was with George Washington. It was with Barack Obama, who flew it at his first presidential inauguration in 2009. So let’s keep the Betsy Ross Flag flying—not to annoy leftists who are willing to surrender it to the right-wing crazies, but to assert a clear and unassailable point: The Betsy Ross Flag belongs not to a fringe, but to all of us.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.