Sophia Nelson: Colin Kaepernick and Nike are wrong – as a black woman, I know a flag on sneakers isn’t racist

I’m a black woman whose ancestors were enslaved in Georgia and South Carolina under horrific conditions. But I disagree with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who reportedly contends that because many founders of our nation owned slaves or supported slavery, the flag they fought under to win independence from Britain is an offensive symbol.

And I believe Nike was wrong to capitulate to Kaepernick this week and halt the release of an athletic shoe bearing the original American flag on the heel, saying that it could “unintentionally offend” some people because it was the symbol of our nation during the era of slavery.

I agree with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the immoral and sinful institution of slavery was America’s “birth defect.” It can never be erased and must never be forgotten.

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So certainly, on this Fourth of July long weekend celebrating our nation’s 243rd birthday, it’s important to remember these eloquent words of the Declaration of Independence in reality only applied to white men: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Slavery continued, tragically, until it was ended in 1865 after a bloody Civil War. Native Americans saw the entire nation taken from them and were forced onto reservations. Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920. Unfortunately, discrimination against these and other groups continues to this day.

So where does that leave us? Should we be ashamed and embarrassed of all of American history because our nation was and still is flawed?

Should we refuse to display today’s flag and any other patriotic symbol and abolish Independence Day celebrations?

And while we’re at it, should we abolish our national anthem, because Kaepernick led a protest movement of NFL players to kneel when the anthem was played?

Some people object to the Pledge of Allegiance – should that be thrown out as well? 

Obviously, the answer is “no” to all these questions.

A great nation does not run from its history. A great nation rises above its sins and flaws and learns from the past in order to build a brighter future.

What we need to do in 2019 is focus on our present – and our future.

This nation is deeply divided right now on matters of race, values, culture and politics. It is as if we are still fighting a civil war of sorts, when what we need to be doing is talking to and listening to one another. Really listening.

The reality is that we will never fix racism and systemic racial inequalities by using our political and social capital on stunts like the one Nike just pulled.

Instead, we are yelling at one another. We are pointing fingers. We are angry.

Some want economic reparations for the injustice of slavery. Others, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., believe that America has paid that “promissory note” that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech.”

McConnell recently said that since no one who was a slave or who owned slaves is still alive today – and since we elected a black president – there is no need for reparations.

I think both camps are being shortsighted. The election of Barack Obama as our nation’s first black president did not erase America’s racial past or our present inequities. The legacy of slavery and racial discrimination remains with us.

However, reparations for the descendants of slaves would be a massive undertaking that, if truly carried out properly, would cost trillions of dollars. And reparations would spark a huge backlash from Americans who are not descended from slaves and who feel they have no responsibility for slavery.

The reality is that we will never fix racism and systemic racial inequalities by using our political and social capital on stunts like the one Nike just pulled.

The original flag of the 13 colonies is not racist. It is not hateful. I am aware that some racial hate groups have adapted it to their dark ends. But do we let small pockets of Americans steal the meaning of our flag for hate?

Our original flag symbolized 13 states united as one nation. It is a symbol of the founding motto of America: E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.

Betsy Ross, who supposedly sewed our first flag, did not own slaves. She was a seamstress from Philadelphia, and – whether the story surrounding her is 100 percent correct or not – she was one of the few women acknowledged for her role in our new nation’s founding.

For Nike and Colin Kaepernick to suggest that selling the sneakers decorated with America’s original flag would be offensive or traumatic to black Americans is political correctness gone wild.

Twelve U.S. presidents owned slaves at some point in their lives – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. 

By holding other human beings as property, these presidents all committed an immoral act. But it would go too far to say that as a result we should condemn everything they did in their lives and try to eliminate them from our history. 

The truth is that slavery is older than our nation. The first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia exactly 400 years ago – in 1619. Slave labor played a crucial role in our early history in colonial times and as a nation.

But the Civil War that was fought to end slavery is also part of our history. So is the emancipation of the slaves. And so are all the subsequent efforts involving constitutional amendments and laws to end racial discrimination in our country.

Certainly, the evil of racism still exists. But things are a lot better than they were years ago, and we can be proud that America elected a black president in 2008. The truth, my fellow Americans, is that we will always be in the process of perfecting our union.

We cannot travel back in time to prevent slavery from ever occurring. We can only heal from where we are now. We must drive forward, not spend our lives staring in the rearview mirror.

What Nike did by abandoning the original American flag on its sneakers was to set back the seriousness of the racial diversity and inclusion movement. It emboldened demographic and cultural fear stoked by those like white supremacist David Duke, who seek to divide America.

And the truth is, people are tired of silliness like this. We have bigger fish to fry than what kind of sneakers you wear.

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Let us instead work together to address inequality and discrimination in housing, income, education health care, mass incarceration and other areas.

We need to take on the real issues that matter to America. And believe me – a pair of shoes ain’t it.