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Conservative Political Correctness and the Colin Kaepernick–Nike July 4th Controversy

Nike pulled a sneaker line with the "Betsy Ross" flag, outraging the right wing.
A Nike ad featuring American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick on display September 8th, 2018, in New York City.

A Nike ad featuring American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick on display September 8th, 2018, in New York City.

There are few things more American than fireworks on the Fourth of July, a warm slice of Apple pie, and railing against the symbols deployed by major corporations to sell more sneakers.

Sneaker giant Nike spent the birthday of the United States nixing the distribution of a special edition of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike sneakers. The problem? The 13-star "Betsy Ross" flag of the American Revolution, according to former quarterback turned activist and Nike brand ambassador Colin Kaepernick, who, the New York Times reported, "privately criticized the design to Nike ... [and] expressed the concern to the company that the Betsy Ross flag had been co-opted by groups espousing racist ideologies." A spokesman said the company made the decision "based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation's patriotic holiday."

The decision did not go over well. Kaepernick quickly became the target of conservative ire, the logic of which is best captured in comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to the Lexington Herald Leader: "If we're in a political environment where the American flag has become controversial to Americans, I think we've got a problem." Kaepernick, for his part, responded with a July 4th tweet quoting Fredrick Douglass: "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.... There is not a nation on the Earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour."

Kaepernick's not wrong about the inexorable relationship between whiteness and the American project. Moreover, historians have noted that modern right-wing has often attempted to "appropriate and fetishize the American Revolution for their own ugly (and historically inaccurate) purposes," as University of Memphis history professor Scott Marler told CNBC—look no further than the adoption of the "Don't Tread on Me" Gadsden Flag by the Tea Party movement. (The Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism notes that, besides one highly public incident in 2016, these efforts haven't been particularly successful.)

While this critique may be a relatively broad one, the takeaway for Kaepernick's critics is narrower: He and Nike hate the American flag and, by extension, the U.S. military veterans and service members who protect our freedoms abroad.

They couldn't be more wrong. First of all, Kaepernick behaved well within his role as brand ambassador. After all, Nike tapped him in the first place as a beacon of "woke" corporate brand-building, not to simply give the company a veneer of social justice legitimacy, but to help the company avoid major missteps in an era where every potential business decision is fertile ground for the culture wars. And arguably, Kaepernick's criticism was less full-throated protest and more helpful guidance: As Cornell University historian Mary Beth Norton put it in an interview with CNBC, "If all these historians didn't know [the relationship between white supremacy and the Betsy Ross flag], then Nike shouldn't be expected to know it."

More importantly, the American public doesn't seem willing to sacrifice Nike on the altar of patriotism over a pair of sneakers. While Kaepernick's September of 2018 "coming out" as Nike's brand ambassador sent Nike stock plunging as much as 3.9 percent during that day's trading, the company actually closed just over 2 percent higher on the day the Betsy Ross "controversy" first emerged, indicating less broad market skittishness around reactionary conservative boycotts. Indeed, both controversies ended up catalyzing a surge in Millennial spending that sent profits soaring; while Kaepernick may have induced a handful of people to torch their kicks in protest last September, the response seems far more muted today even as conservative figures like Arizona Governor Doug Ducey punish the company with state resources.

Both of these elements help differentiate between the anti-Nike outcry and other recent consumer revolts. Unlike the recent progressive revolt against Wayfair, which has a larger ethico-political endgame, the new controversy with Nike is an end in itself, inflamed solely as a border skirmish in a broad culture war rather than as a vehicle for a specific goal. Right-wing firebrands may love to rail against the "woke" as the new peons of modern political correctness, but it's actually conservative Republicans who tend to function as the main adherents to the cult of identity politics; indeed, a 2019 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that the Republicans see a "truly American" attitude as differentiated from Democrats in terms of overwhelming respect for God, capitalism, and American institutions of law and order. The protest isn't about righting a larger wrong; it's an affirmation of those "truly American" qualities among a subset of the population.

But the glory of Old Glory isn't the symbol it used to be. An annual Gallup survey released ahead of July 4th revealed that pride in the U.S. is at its lowest point since 2001, with less than half of Americans identifying as "extremely" proud. For an angry few, Kaepernick's recommendation to Nike is an affront to all things good and decent. For everyone else, a pair of Air Max 1 Quick Strike sneakers are not the ultimate vehicle of political agency that the Founding Fathers probably envisioned on Independence Day.


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