Were Betsy Ross Flags Flown at Obama’s Inauguration?

Missing from the debate? The many things that have changed since 2012.

  • Published 5 July 2019

A media kerfuffle over football-star-turned-civil-rights activist Colin Kaepernick and a canceled Nike shoe design featuring the so-called Betsy Ross flag ignited a “manufactroversy” in the lead-up to the 2019 Independence Day holiday.

After Kaepernick’s purported role in torpedoing a shoe set for release on July 4, the internet lit up with commentary. Some people pointed to the 2012 inauguration of former U.S. President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, in which the 13-star, Revolutionary War-era flag could be seen hanging behind the stage.

This particular iteration of whataboutism was irrelevant, though, mostly because of the passage of time and intervening events. Although the Betsy Ross flag did adorn the stage during Obama’s second swearing-in ceremony, for some people the symbol has taken on new meanings in the era of his successor, President Donald Trump, during which far-right extremism has grown.

During the Trump era, what were once relics of the United States’ fraught history with violent racism have been taken up as causes for some far-right extremists. As white supremacists began rallying around Confederate monuments slated for removal, some tried to attach the Betsy Ross flag to their cause as a symbol.

The Anti-Defamation League, a non-profit organization that tracks hate groups, doesn’t include the flag in its database of confirmed hate symbols. But many have viewed the flag as symbolizing a time in U.S. history when slavery was legal.

“Historically, these symbols have been used by white supremacists, both to hearken back to a time when black people were enslaved, while also painting themselves as the inheritors of the ‘true’ American tradition,” Keegan Hankes, a researcher for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Rolling Stone.

Kaepernick was the target of anger in the right-leaning media ecosystem when he launched a protest in 2016 over police violence against people of color by kneeling during the national anthem at the beginning of football games. Nike’s decision in 2018 to partner with Kaepernick in an ad campaign set off another frenzy of internet outrage. 

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