First, Happy 4th of July 2019 the 243rd Birthday of this American Experiment!
The controversy over the original flag and its symbolic relationship to slavery and racism does nothing to further the discussion on racism in the United States.
While I disagree with his methods, Colin Kaepernick does demonstrate the courage of his convictions. However, he misses the point with such meaningless protests toward Nike and their Betsy Ross sneakers.
Slave labor built much of early America. Of that, there is no dispute. Slaveholders provided much of the labor which drove America’s rise in global trade. When slavery ended, inequitable treatment of minorities offered a slightly more expensive but still bargain price for labor.
It is one of the strangest dichotomies of the rise of the United States from the bonds of British tyranny. The founding fathers joined to fight for their independence from a Royal Government which trampled their rights. This same Royal Government recognized the inhumanity and inherent injustice of holding a fellow human in slavery and banned the practice.
It underscores the point that no government, no society, no people are perfect. They have their brief shining moments, rising to greatness as shown by documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and their failures by killing over seven hundred thousand of their fellow Americans to end slavery in the “land of the free.”
However, symbols are often never single-purpose. While the original flag may well have flown over institutions or government organizations which supported slavery, it also flew over many that did not.
History is not a moment in time. If that were the case, we would be right to argue the genocide of Native Americans, where both pre- and post- Civil War American Soldiers slaughtered tens of thousands and displaced millions, is worse than slavery.
Quantifying such atrocities is an exercise in futility.
Nothing can ever undo the tarnish of the practice of slavery in the US, nor the ever-present racism which permeates much of our culture to this day. However, to isolate one symbol and demand its removal from the public discourse without recognizing the multiple manifestations of its symbolism is disingenuous.
I would argue the effort to remove such a symbol amounts to placing an unfair comparative standard on items with little connection to the reality of the times.
Americans stole slaves from their homeland, brought them to America, and bred and traded them like cattle. The ships bringing slaves to America flew the same American flag.
Americans, by declaration not birth, stole a country from Native Americans and destroyed their entire culture. The soldiers who imposed the policies against these Native Americans followed that same flag into battle.
These are America’s darkest chapters.
There are brighter chapters written by the American people.
That same flag led Americans into battles at Belleau Woods, Marne, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Chosin Reservoir, Hue. Places where Americans died to save others from tyranny.
That same flag flew in planes that airlifted food to Berlin, brought aid around the world, and offered reassurance just by its mere presence throughout the world.
That same flag flies on the surface of the moon and on the Voyager spacecraft which left the solar system and now travels in interstellar space.
One cannot take a symbol from one moment in history and equate it to the practices, beliefs, or actions of an entire nation. We cannot eliminate racism by attacking the past. We can eliminate racism by learning from the mistakes, and the triumphs, of the past to change the future.
Nike, sell the damn sneakers. Americans died to ensure freedom of speech and the flag represents that more so than reflects racial bias or support for slavery.