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America’s Symbols Belong to All Americans

The Editors

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Betsy Ross flag — 13 red and white stripes, 13 stars — was probably not designed by Betsy Ross. This is worth keeping in mind when it comes to thinking about the 1770s flag at the center of a very modern controversy. Its birth can’t be traced to any one person. It belongs to all Americans.

The Ross flag was drawn into the culture wars with the best of patriotic and commercial intentions. Nike created a special sneaker, the Air Max 1 Quick Strike, to celebrate the Fourth of July. The back of the shoe featured an image of the Betsy Ross flag. Colin Kaepernick — former NFL quarterback, activist, Nike spokesperson — told the company that he considered the image to be offensive, as it has been embraced by white supremacists, perhaps because it dates from a time when slavery grotesquely coexisted with the American idea.

Nike then reversed course, saying in a statement that it decided to “halt distribution” of the sneaker “based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday.”

The fireworks got started early.

Kaepernick is right to point out that this version of the flag has been appropriated for darker purposes. But that is all the more reason for the rest of America to hold tight to it. Not because it symbolizes perfection or even true equality — it doesn’t. But it signals the beginning of a journey toward a more perfect union that we are still traveling today. Singling out one star or one stripe isn’t part of the bargain.

Kaepernick is also within his rights to speak out in defense of his beliefs — just as Nike should conduct its business in whatever way it sees fit, and Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, is entitled to look for another brand of footwear, as he has vowed to do.

But the ensuing discussion has given credence to the misguided notion that a flag of the original 13 colonies is somehow a symbol of hatred. This is wrong — just as trying to censor the Ross flag eliminates the possibility of reclaiming it from those who would hijack it for malign purposes. Erasing history, whether from a textbook or the heel of a sneaker, rarely works out.

The flags of the United States — worn, stained, battle-scarred — mark the country’s imperfect path. They are a catalog of flawed progress, but progress nonetheless, with rights restricted and then enlarged. Americans own them all, and all that they represent.

—Editor: David Shipley.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg Opinion’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net, .

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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