Betsy Ross, Colin Kaepernick, and the faux conservative Independence Day outrage
Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted out this photoshopped image of a "communist" Nike shoe following the company's recall of the "Betsy Ross" shoe design. | via Twitter

As the month of June barreled forward into July, the public turned its attention to one thing…well…actually, two things: Expressions of patriotism and the controversy which followed in their wake.

This Fourth of July marked 243 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Politicians always try to stoke pride by highlighting the heroism of the revolution and past glories. According to Donald Trump, Independence Day is also a time to remember when George Washington and the Continental Army “manned the air, rammed the ramparts” and “took over the airports” in our new nation’s fight against the British crown.

All laughter and inaccuracies aside, Trump’s historical blunder points to a trend which, while predating the current White House administration, has grown substantially as of late—the repurposing of historical events and slogans to fit a particular narrative. And the narrative they’re being deployed to support is quite often a racist and discriminatory one reeking of white nationalism.

Think back to when the Koch brothers-founded TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party took control of the “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flag. That flag became a standard at every “Obama wasn’t born here” rally around the country about ten years ago.

Now, it’s a different flag that we’re all talking about. At the center of the latest patriotic controversy stands Betsy Ross, the Philadelphia upholsterer who designed the early flag of the United States—thirteen white, five-pointed stars in a circle on a blue canton with the red and white bars.

Shortly before the federal holiday’s arrival, Nike pulled its Air Max 1 USA shoe, which featured the Revolutionary-era U.S. flag, the “Betsy Ross,” on the heel. Why? Because ex-NFL quarterback and “Take a Knee” movement founder Colin Kaepernick (who is also the public face of recent Nike ad campaigns) called up the company and said the flag recalls an era when Black people were enslaved and that it has been appropriated by white nationalist groups.

Nike decided to recall the shoe after it had already been sent to retailers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As you can imagine, the conservative backlash was instantaneous—because we know how much conservatives hate Kaepernick and love to pound their chests (online) to prove how tough and patriotic they are.

“The whiny Nike spokes-baby is offended and oppressed by a freakin’ shoe,” Fox Nation pundit Tomi Lahren tweeted, while Sen. Ted Cruz said: “It’s a good thing Nike only wants to sell sneakers to people who hate the American flag….”

Donald Trump, Jr., took the cake though. He tweeted an image of red sneakers that turned Nike’s trademark swoosh emblem into half of a yellow-colored hammer and sickle, implying that the capitalist athletic apparel giant—whose revenue topped $36 billion last year—was really communist.  To steal a line from the ’80s movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.” If you scroll through the following tweets, Donnie, it’d be clear Nike would make bank off of those sneakers.

Nike pulled a shoe with a “Betsy Ross” style flag on the heel after Colin Kaepernick said the design evoked America’s slavery era. | AP

This whole issue matters because it forces us to take a much-needed look in the mirror, again.

“Under the guise of ‘heritage’, symbols of early U.S. history have long been adopted by hate groups set on returning to a time when all non-white people were viewed as subhuman and un-American,” said Keegan Hankes, research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “Historically, these symbols have been used by white supremacists, both to hearken back to a time when black people were enslaved, while also painting themselves as the inheritors of the ‘true’ American tradition.”

This is not the first time the “Betsy Ross” flag has faced controversy. In 2016, a Michigan chapter of the NAACP said the flag had been “appropriated by the so-called ‘Patriot Movement’ and other militia groups who are responding to America’s increasing diversity with opposition and racial supremacy.”

The NAACP chapter’s statement was a response to a high school football game where some white students used the flag while attempting to intimidate players from a predominantly Black school.

The debate over the use of the “Betsy Ross” flag, along with other historical symbols, is complicated because the meaning all depends on use and context.

This historic flag means many things to many people. And more importantly, the misuse of such items should be called out. This is not about “rewriting American history,” but rather confronting the historic wrongs committed during our 243-year run.

In the end, patriotism isn’t defined by a piece of cloth. It is defined by how we tackle injustice, both present and past, to make this country a better place.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.