Few things are more American than a giant company’s efforts to turn a profit off a patriotic emblem — and then seeing the product flare into a cultural bonfire just in time for the Fourth of July. But if the debate over Nike’s hasty decision not to release a shoe featuring the Betsy Ross flag has become hopelessly tangled, unknotting it should lead us to one conclusion: We shouldn’t be so quick to capitulate when racists try to taint symbols of our national story.
The story would have made headlines under any circumstances, coming as it does in the middle of a resurgent cultural war. But it gained special currency because of the involvement of one of the most prominent figures in our ongoing conflict over sports, patriotism and the role that big business plays in both. News reports suggested that Colin Kaepernick, the Nike brand ambassador and former NFL quarterback who became famous for kneeling during the national anthem, convinced Nike to pull the shoe, though those reports differed as to his motivations. An initial report suggested that Kaepernick was leery of a flag from an era when slavery was legal in America; a subsequent one said that Kaepernick’s concern was the way racist groups have tried to claim the Betsy Ross flag as their own.
The colonial-era flag has become a flash point, or at least, an inflammatory detail, in the recent past: In 2016, high school students displayed the standard along with a Trump political flag at a high school football game in Michigan. Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan have tried to appropriate it, though even the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has acknowledged that the connection is weak.
Matters escalated further when Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), whose state had offered financial incentives to encourage the shoe manufacturer to open a factory there, declared that Nike “has bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism,” and threatened to revoke the package. From there, public figures rushed to pick sides: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed to order the first pair of the shoes if they were reinstated, while Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke declared that Nike had done the right thing in considering that the flag might be hurtful for some Americans.
Overnight, a threadbare piece of American mythology became both a symbol of white nationalism and a treasured icon of American patriotism.
Those who support Nike’s decision largely do so on the grounds that, because a small number of people have imparted their own noxious meaning to a well-known symbol, that symbol is now irrevocably tainted. Ducey, McConnell and other partisans have sidestepped this more nuanced argument to suggest this is just another case of liberals condemning America for its sins without crediting its good works.
Reclaiming symbols isn’t easy in a moment when everything from the hand signal for “okay” to a cartoon frog can be corrupted. But what if, in a well-meaning effort to deny white supremacists lulz and comfort, we’ve ceded territory to them instead? If everything they express affection for is verboten, we’re denying ourselves the pleasures ranging from a cold glass of milk with a cookie to the music of Taylor Swift. And if we accede whenever racists try to taint a symbol with other preexisting associations, we’re consenting to the spread of poison rather than delivering vigorous antidotes on the spot.
Instead of engaging in cultural and historical cleansing, we need to learn how to reconsecrate what we value.
A person who desecrates an object that holds meaning for a large group of people can do harm both to that object and to the people who care about it, but the story doesn’t have to end there. Attacks on mosques, for example, cost congregations substantial amounts of money as they try to clean and rebuild their sacred spaces, and they cause real fear and anxiety within Muslim communities. But the people who desecrate sacred spaces don’t get the final say over what those spaces mean. That belongs to the people who visit every day or every week to reaffirm their values.
The same can be true for secular symbols. There’s a reason that Stanley Forman, then a photojournalist for the Boston Herald American, titled his iconic photo of a white teenager appearing to stab at a black lawyer with the American flag at the height of Boston’s bitter fight over school integration “The Soiling of Old Glory.” What Joseph Rakes, the teenager, tried to do to Ted Landsmark, the lawyer, would have been obscene no matter his choice of weapon. And in appearing to turn the flag into a spear, Rakes did violence to the idea of the flag itself in a way that compounded the viciousness of the attack.
But Rakes didn’t get to determine what the flag means for everyone. As Landsmark told NPR in 2016, he believes that while “very heinous things” have been done under cover of the flag, it still can be used in ways that speak to “what we want to be as opposed to what we sometimes have been.”
Both Nike’s partisans and those lining up to condemn the company missed an opportunity. We shouldn’t just roll over when racists try to poison a broadly accepted symbol. And the best way to fight for the values you believe that symbol represents isn’t to stitch it on a sneaker.