How is a sportswear company a useful (or even relevant) arbiter of what a deeply fraught political symbol means?
Nike, Inc. is the latest company to challenge our understanding of how to use historical imagery in today's political climate without being blindly offensive or willfully ignorant to American history.
They've recently pulled their limited-edition Air Max 1 sneaker, decorated with the 13-starred "Betsy Ross flag." Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco's 49ers and controversial activist (as well as the face of Nike's 30th anniversary "Just Do It" campaign) reportedly informed Nike that, to many people, the American Revolution-era flag symbolizes little more than America's foundations of slavery and racism. Online backlash against the company was immediate. While some argue that the "Betsy Ross flag" is an American staple that should be set apart from the systemic racial inequality of its time period, others affirm that the flag's appropriation by modern extremist hate groups justifies its eradication. Fierce advocates for the former argue that in order to re-appropriate the symbol, Nike should release the initially $110 sneakers (a few early released pairs are now being re-sold for upwards of $2,000). But what real statement would that make? How is a sportswear company a useful (or even relevant) arbiter of what a deeply fraught political symbol means?
On Monday, Nike took to Instagram to revise their advertisement for the shoe's release, posting on Instagram: "Update: release is indefinitely postponed. Retailers are being asked to return the shoes to Nike. Celebrate the upcoming #IndependenceDay holiday with these Air Max 1s featuring the flag sewn by Betsy Ross." The shoe was pulled from their online store, and merchants who were already shipped their orders were asked to send them back without an explanation.
(Re-sale on StockX)
What ensued was a Twitter frenzy over whether Kaepernick had lodged a baseless complaint with Nike, whose products he's endorsed throughout the public backlash against him in 2016 when he began kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequality. From vehement slavery-apologists to half-informed commenters who conflate criticism of the old flag's historical context with criticism of all American flags, the charged debate taps into America's deep divides along lines of patriotism, education, and racial experiences. Even Senator Ted Cruz added his cloying antagonism, posting, "It's a good thing @Nike only wants to sell sneakers to people who hate the American flag.... @NFL #HappyFourth."
One user posted, "@Kaepernick7 is really reaching with this one and I was supporting his stance, but this is crazy and for Nike to cave in because he feels offended, it's not a good look. I'd bet maybe 1 in 50 people, if that, would even know or have an idea why this is 'offensive'. This is 🥜." In response, marketing director Dom Garrett explained, "It has been appropriated by some extremist groups opposed to America's increasing diversity. You should be upset at those groups, not Nike."
Similar rebuttals span from explaining the coded history woven into the American Revolution-era flag to dismissing the outrage as culture war fodder. "Everyone please understand, this fake outrage of the American Flag Nike shoes is simply an excuse for casual white supremacists to justify their anti-Black hatred and get on code with other anti-Black racists without having to use extreme language or symbols," one user wrote. Barstool Sports simply posted, "If You Are Mad That Nike Pulled Their Betsy Ross Flag Sneakers Because Colin Kaepernick Complained About Them Than You Have A Big Dump in Your Pants."
But the white noise of Twitter outrage was given more gravity when Arizona Governor Doug Ducey posted a series of Tweets that not only criticized Nike's decision but claimed to withdraw support of a new Nike location that was due to open in Goodyear, Arizona. The plant was expected to create more than 500 full-time jobs. Ducey posted, "Nike has made its decision, and now we're making ours. I've ordered the Arizona Commerce Authority to withdraw all financial incentive dollars under their discretion that the State was providing for the company to locate here." He added, "Arizona's economy is doing just fine without Nike. We don't need to suck up to companies that consciously denigrate our nation's history."
The question at the center of the debate remains: Who cares? More specifically, what place does Nike have to represent how we, as a nation, perceive our history?
Ultimately, let's not forget that Nike's "limited-edition Air Max 1" shoe design was only intended to capitalize on July 4th, a celebration of freedom from tyranny which, at best, reminds Americans of all we have to reckon with if we're to be proud of America in 2019. Nike designed a marketing ploy to capitalize on American pride and independence, and perhaps this outrage was part of the plan all along, directing attention to the brand and shaping its #woke political stance. Of course, this was never about the significance of the "Betsy Ross Flag"; it was about shoe sales profiting from Kaepernick-based controversy. As Business Insider reported, "Last year, Nike made Kaepernick the face of an advertising campaign while he was engaged in a dispute with the [NFL]. Nike last week reported quarterly sales rose 4% to $10.2 billion."
Meanwhile, some Twitter users have suggested that those contributing to the trending #Nike topic focus on matters of greater national importance: "The Right has expressed more outrage over Nike taking shoes off shelves & throwing them in the trash than they have over CBP taking children from parents & throwing them in Concentration Camps."
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The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.
Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.
"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."
This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.
Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality
Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.
But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?
Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?
When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.
After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.
Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.
Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.
Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.
For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.
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