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Conservatives absolutely love to hate Colin Kaepernick, and a recent controversy centering around Fourth of July-themed Nike sneakers proved to be no exception. On Monday evening, Nike announced it would be pulling a new edition of Fourth of July-themed sneakers featuring the original United States flag as designed by Betsy Ross, with 13 stars in a circle. According to the Wall Street Journal, the reason why Nike pulled the shoe was because Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who has served as a spokesperson for Nike, objected to the use of the flag, claiming the image was inextricably linked to the nation’s early history of slavery.
Almost immediately, conservatives worked themselves into a tizzy over Kaepernick’s objection. “The whiny Nike spokes-baby is offended and oppressed by a freakin’ shoe,” uber-right-wing pundit Tomi Lahren tweeted, while Sen. Ted Cruz weighed in: “It’s a good thing Nike only wants to sell sneakers to people who hate the American flag….” The widespread perception appeared to be that the original American flag was a totally innocuous symbol and a reminder of our nation’s proud history, and that social justice warriors had decided to raise a stink about it for no reason. The governor of Arizona even tweeted that he would be withdrawing financial incentive for Nike to open a manufacturing plant in the state, a move that would have created nearly 500 jobs.
But as many on social media pointed out, the American flag sewn by Betsy Ross is not a symbol of early American history that is totally devoid of meaning. It has been used by some extremist groups as a means of telegraphing a return to more traditionalist (re: predominantly white and male) American ideals. “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,” says 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.”
While she has never heard of the Betsy Ross flag being used by white supremacists, Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, says she was not surprised to hear of it, referring to it as part of a larger effort to claim “‘white’ figures of U.S. history as building blocks of a narrative of a white ethno-state, as exclusively ‘their’ national narrative.” As another example, Schmidt cited how alt-right protesters at Charlottesville attacked UVA students who had locked arms around a Thomas Jefferson statue in a gesture of defiance, shouting cries to the effect of, “he’s ours.”
To be clear, the Betsy Ross flag is not nearly as recognizable a symbol of white supremacy as, say, the Confederate flag. “This is not a flag I see waving at events or seeing displayed on their websites,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Center of Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), tells Rolling Stone. It has, however, been associated with the Patriot Movement, an anti-government, extremist right-wing movement that encompasses smaller fringe movements such as the militia movement, the sovereign citizen movement, and the tax protest movement. (Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was highly influenced by militia movement ideology.) The militia movement, says Pitcavage, is the youngest of the three, dating from about the mid-1990s, and has been using the Betsy Ross flag, among other Revolutionary War-era symbols, since its inception. “Because they view themselves as analogous to American revolutionaries, they love to use old flags from that era,” he says, citing the Revolutionary War-era “don’t tread on me” flag as another example. The Betsy Ross flag is apparently so closely identified with the Patriot Movement that until this morning, it was the main image of its Wikipedia page, according to reporter Charles Robinson. (It has since been removed, but is viewable on a cached version of the webpage.)
While the white supremacist movement and the Patriot movement are not synonymous, there is some overlap between the two. The flag has also been used or reinterpreted by groups like the American Identity Movement (formerly Identity Evropa) and Patriot Front, both of which have been classified as hate groups by the SPLC and were founded within the past few years. Pitcavage says that the Knight Riders, a now-defunct West Virginia-based Ku Klux Klan group, at one point required that every chapter of the group had to use either the Confederate flag or the Betsy Ross flag to cover the “altar” during meetings with Klan rituals; most recently, the Betsy Ross flag was depicted in a 2018 flier allegedly distributed in upstate New York for the United Northern & Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which depicts a Klansman on horseback carrying a Confederate flag in one hand and a Betsy Ross flag in another. Such groups “[brand] themselves in the trappings of Americana with the aim of creating a more marketable image for their dedication to creating an all-white nation,” says Hankes.
These relatively recent reappropriations of the Betsy Ross flag have led to the symbol becoming loaded with meaning, particularly in the hyper-polarized Trump era. In 2016, for instance, about two months before Trump was elected, white high school students at a Grand Rapids football game chanted pro-Trump and pro-white slogans while waving the flag during a game against a predominantly black school. One parent wrote an open letter criticizing the students for brandishing the flag, referencing its role in the patriot movement; this argument was then widely derided by right-wing blogs, who attested to the flag’s historical significance and denied it had any such racist implications.
Therein lies the crux of the debate over the use of the original American flag design, as well as any number of historical American symbols that have been used innocuously and also reappropriated for nefarious purposes: the meaning is entirely dependent on its context. And it’s true that not every group that evokes the original flag does so for political reasons. “I’ve definitely seen the original U.S. flag appropriated by white nationalist groups, also the variant of the flag with a 76 in the middle of the stars (for 1776),” says Robert Evans, an investigative journalist for Bellingcat who covers far-right extremist communities. “But both flags are also common among non-explicitly racist or fascist patriotic Americans.” That said, using American historical symbols to evoke an explicitly white, male, Christian view of U.S. history is a “longstanding” branding tactic in the extremist right wing’s playbook: in such a context, it can be read as an “attempt to co-opt the messaging and appearance of various “patriot” groups in order to radicalize their members,” says Evans.
The Betsy Ross flag might mean many different things to many different people, but given its more recent use among extremist groups, it certainly doesn’t mean nothing, as some on the right have claimed. In fact, Nike’s decision to pull the sneaker seems less a result of excessive political correctness, and more a decision motivated by the most American concern of all: making lots of money. A company with a market cap of $134.2 billion doesn’t have a lot to gain from selling a sneaker featuring a design that may or may not have been coopted by nationalist groups — but it certainly does have a lot to lose.