Stay Out of Pre-1850 American Controversies, Gavin

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Gov. Gavin Newsom shouldn’t have jumped into the controversy about an old American flag on Nike shoes.

Because he didn’t have to. He’s a governor of a new state.

For those who missed it, Nike pulled limited edition shoes that used the Betsy Ross flag—reflecting the 13 original colonies—reportedly after complaints from the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others that they represented a time of slavery and oppression in America. That flag also has become a symbol employed by white supremacists.

The backlash against the Nike decision was fierce. And the governor of Arizona jumped into it to say that he wanted to take away incentives given to Nike for a facility in his state. At that prompt, Newsom jumped in, saying California would be happy to host Nike and saying the shoe company did the right thing.

I’m agnostic on the question of the shoes. That’s a decision for Nike and its customers, and I suppose, the eternally and professionally offended folks of left and right.

But I’m quite sure that Newsom should have kept out of it. 

It’s not merely that the governor should have other bigger priorities, like, ahem, housing. And it’s not just that Newsom needs to be building unity in a state where people have many different ideas about the flag and history.

It’s that this wasn’t California’s fight, or the state government’s. Our state has so many other fights it needs to prosecute that our more important—on health care, economy, trade, immigration.

It wouldn’t have been hard to duck the controversy if he were asked about it. Newsom could have said that staying out of the controversy is a straightforward matter of history. The Ross flag predates the admission of California into the union in 1850. We’re not responsible for the America of 13 colonies—we were the 31st state into the union.

And who really cares about the early America? That was when this country was small boring—before California joined up, and America really started to matter!

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