Last September, people willingly burned their Nike products in protest of the sneaker company's partnership with athlete-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick. That crowd probably won't be pleased to hear that, days before the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July sneaker was set to go on sale, Nike announced that its Independence Day-themed shoe was no longer available.
The red, white, and blue sneakers sported the original version of the American flag, created by Betsy Ross in 1776—nearly 100 years before the abolition of slavery. When photos of the sneaker circulated online, Kaepernick (who appeared in one of the brand's "Just Do It" campaigns last September) advised the sneaker giants against using a flag whose symbolism, he said, was inextricably tied to the oppression of Black people on American soil.
"Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July, as it featured the old version of the American flag," a Nike representative told The Wall Street Journal. Critics like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey fired back at the sneaker company's decision, considering it a slap in the face to American history. But what Ducey and other detractors fail to realize is that the American history was already tainted; by choosing to separate themselves from American symbols that are emblematic of larger injustices, Nike did the right thing.
When Betsy Ross sewed together the first American flag in the 1770s, each part of the flag was intended to reflect of the country at that time: 13 stars for America's first 13 colonies. But that didn't reflect the people who were robbed of their freedom and civil liberties in order to establish this nation; while this country was deemed the "Land of the Free," not everyone on American soil enjoyed freedom.
Betsy Ross' flag has never encapsulated the entire American experience. There has never truly been a time when the country gave everyone equal footing. Betsy Ross' flag, in many ways, represents the same lineage of American history as the Confederate flag—which itself carries so much ancestral trauma that someone like Bree Newsome climbed a 30-foot flag pole to remove it from the lawn of the South Carolina Capitol. It's a historical throwback to a "Make America Great Again"-esque rhetoric, which itself became a dog whistle for white supremacy (a cause which Kaepernick has very publicly fought against). In 2016, a group of Michigan students brought a Trump banner and Betsy Ross' flag to a football game at a predominantly Black high school. The juxtaposition of those two flags makes jarringly clear how easily they can be used to define who is considered truly American.
Shortly after the sneaker company's announcement, Arizona Gov. Ducey publicized that he and the Arizona Commerce Authority would be withdrawing financial incentives for Nike as a result of its decision. "Instead of celebrating American history the week of our nation's independence, Nike has apparently decided that Betsy Ross is unworthy, and has bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism," he tweeted. "It is a shameful retreat for the company. American businesses should be proud of our country's history, not abandoning it."
"Not abandoning" America's history would mean being entirely fine with the fact that, for generations, one person's gain has come at the expense of another person's quality of life. What critics like Ducey fail to realize is that flags don't exist in a vacuum; in fact, they carry deep symbolism and weight. And the power of symbolism isn't lost on Colin Kaepernick. He understood that his decision to kneel during the anthem was also symbolic, even if that meant losing his job as a professional athlete. Nike's decision to pull the Betsy Ross sneaker shows that it genuinely values Kaepernick's opinion, and its partnership with the athlete was never just for optics—just like flags aren't.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.