Is the Betsy Ross Flag Racist?

I was really excited to watch this video about Chinook “electronic warfare” until I clicked on play and a giant Betsy Ross flag showed up as the backdrop.

There are some places this American flag featuring a 13-star circle (colloquially known as the Betsy Ross) would seem appropriate. This isn’t one of them.

The Betsy Ross wasn’t the first flag of America, it wasn’t the only flag (there were hundreds of interpretations of “constellation” of white stars in the Flag Act of 1777), but it was nonetheless a flag commissioned just before the 1780s.

What was a hot topic of the 1780s? Slavery (or more precisely, passively allowing racism to continue).

…I’m certain that few of the people involved in these situations actively dislike black people – or think lowly of them. Instead, they’re just people acting normally in a system that promotes and protects Eurocentric power by denying, and at best bracketing, the humanity of Africans and Afro-descendant people. In this world, you don’t have to be a racist to be racist; it’s racist to just passively allow racism to continue.

Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery of 1780 set forth truly revolutionary concepts like proposing an end to racism — all children born in the state would be free persons regardless of race or their parents’ race.

In other words, a 1780s flag might make sense in a video about life in the 1780s. Think about a display of all the flags in American history (updated 27 times so far), all side by side that also has one from that time period displayed.

It would be a flag among all the American flags, symbolizing one less-than-ideal chapter of the past. Kind of like saying “here’s an old flag that we no longer fly, it’s from a time of slavery and we use it to show how far we’ve come since then”. It is a flag to symbolize mistakes made, with other flags to show direction and progress since that time.

For another example, think about a history video, with some historians discussing context around the flag, or in a museum about what life was like in 1780s.

Ample opportunity would be given to explain how this flag is from long ago, a time that nobody would want to go back towards because… slavery, not to mention misogyny and a host of other things. Again, was it the only flag? No. Was it the primary flag? No.

This flag really isn’t really supposed to speak for itself because it raises many important questions that really shouldn’t be left open and unanswered.

When used on its own with no context, just a substitution for the present American flag, it tends to beg whether someone is thinking “forget all the Amendements, never mind all the changes, let’s go backwards to white nationalism of the 1780s”.

Or more literally, the Betsy Ross flag typically serves as a warning to Black people they are “neither welcome nor seen as equal”.

To be fair, hate groups tend not to rely on Betsy Ross alone to signal everything they want to say. Nazis and KKK in other words wave this flag along with their other flags, although that might be changing lately.

Here’s how the Betsy Ross used to show up in domestic terrorism meetups:

Source: Twitter
Source: Brad Warthen

An entire video from 2007 shows how the Betsy Ross is appropriated. Again it clearly isn’t sufficient on its own, they have to surround it with other hate flags to make their point.

There’s an important subtext here, which is that in 2007 Nazis were still very much attached to displaying the swastika and costuming to look like Hitler.

It seems absurd today, but back then it was still a Nazi thing to dress like a reenactment of 1938 Germany.

After 2016 the American Nazis were very much opposed to wearing a swastika (they literally banned it themselves after claiming for decades any bans on swastikas would be immoral). Nazis realized they could just fly Trump flags instead.

Here’s what their meetups look like now, and again a Betsy Ross isn’t on its own:

Source: Twitter

Trump plus Betsy Ross = KKK/Nazi (this shouldn’t be news to anyone literate in basic American history).

And on that note, here’s how the Betsy Ross shows up in various domestic terrorism recruitment fliers:

Source: NY
Source: Illinois
Source: Washington

For what it’s worth, the person who took credit for one of these campaigns was found dead after warning he was threatened by others in his group for “not being racist enough”.

That reminds me of how some experts maintain that the Betsy Ross isn’t racist enough yet for them to register it alone as a symbol of hate. Those kind of comments might have been a basis for the KKK to kill their own man.

So what does flying a Betsy Ross represent?

All of this being said, the bottom line is still a Betsy Ross flag probably didn’t come from Betsy Ross, and it absolutely did come from a time when America didn’t consider Black people human and it basically operated as a white police state.

That’s pretty bad on its own.

If there were any real proof the Betsy Ross flag came from Betsy Ross, we might also have to ask whether her design was meant to represent her values of the time (she eloped and intermarried and suffered from American misogyny, in a story not unlike Hutchinson).

Still not great.

It’s like asking the question whether America is racist. The answer is obviously yes, especially at the time of ill-gotten gains under this flag, as Brookings wrote:

When a person critiques America for the racism that is deeply embedded in our social institutions, some feel they are being personally attacked. This is because deep down they realize that they benefit from unearned assets associated with whiteness.

Discussing whether a flag of 1776 America is racist is like someone asking if the “America First” platform of 1915 was racist, or for that matter like asking whether a 1938 flag of Germany was anti-semitic.

Kind of obvious, no?

Washington could have freed his slaves. He did not. Washington could have demanded “all men created equal” was written as all people. He did not.

Washington could have cited the Georgia (1735) or the Vermont (1777) colony formal abolition of slavery as a model for the nation. He did not.

on July 2, 1777. In response to abolitionists’ calls across the colonies to end slavery, Vermont became the first colony to ban it outright. Not only did Vermont’s legislature agree to abolish slavery entirely, it also moved to provide full voting rights for African American males

Heck, Washington could have spent more than six months at a time in Philadelphia and thus simply agreed to the law of the land — abide by terms of the local 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.

He did not!

In fact it seems the opposite; while flying his 13 stars and bars flag, Washington is said to have knowingly and repeatedly violated the state’s law (as well as its 1788 Amendment) by constantly rotating his slaves so he could keep them.

Let’s be honest. The American Revolution almost certainly extended and expanded slavery, and repressed women, far more than if Britain had maintained control of its colonies. In the War of 1812 America started enlisting Black freemen to fight against the British and then afterwards taking away the guns and freedoms of the victorious Black veterans (a racist theme that would repeat again in 1899 after the Spanish American War, in 1918 after WWI and so on).

America of 1776 thus can not be separated from the act of forming a new framework of tyranny, especially in Georgia (where British abolition of slavery in 1735 was violently reversed by immigrants who restarted slavery and said it was impossible for white people to live in America without Blacks doing all their work for them). This story was repeated in Texas as well.

That’s right, I just said 1735. America’s Revolutionary war was fought by whites who fully intended to extend slavery, and who were setting the stage for an even bloodier Civil War a century later on the same principles of tyranny.

Britain (as well as France), to put it simply, had been debating release of slaves in the late 1700s and then freed them. Yet during that same time in America was doubling down on slavery and violent white militias were killing anyone who even dared report on mistreatment of Blacks or speak of abolition.

To be fair, France — like America — decided to restart slavery after it had been abolished.

“The decision to reestablish slavery isn’t just a stain on Napoleon’s legacy, it’s a crime,” Louis-Georges Tin, campaigner and honorary president of the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN), told DW. Napoleon’s decision in 1802 to reinstate slavery not only betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution, it also condemned an estimated 300,000 people into a life of bondage for several more years, before France definitively abolished slavery in 1848.

Even more to the point, America after 1808 decided to build a whole new slavery economy based on the state-sanctioned rape of Black women by any white man available… Black children were forcibly birthed (roots of the anti-abortion movement) so they could be bought and sold in the millions! It wasn’t about cotton.

Thus if you’re showing a Betsy Ross flag without some clear reason and some context to be displaying the militant symbol of a white police state that ruthlessly trafficked humans and murdered the press to silence speech, what are you even doing?

On its own it begs the important question whether you have a Confederate battle flag in your pocket, or a 14/88 tattoo somewhere. What’s your context for the 13 stars instead of 50?

I mean to put it another way, even Nazis and KKK bring context whenever they fly it. The Betsy Ross amplifies such messaging for obvious reasons despite being unable to carry a hate tune on its own. This flag both leads people to Andrew Jackson, as well as Barack Obama, but on its own it’s an open question.

It’s kind of obvious why hate groups like such a flag. When they fly it on its own it’s like a subtle invitation to normalize and talk up white nationalism without revealing their full regalia. Psssst, hey kids do you like Washington? Yeah? How about Andrew Jackson or Woodrow Wilson?

In dissolving the 1776 Commission on his first day in office, President Biden helped end one source of misinformation about our past, a reminder that, as we work to restore democracy, we will need to restore honest inquiry and accurate history as well.

It’s an encoded signal to recruit for extremism. Much like flying the various flags of Germany — the revision you choose to fly reveals a lot.

If America had always had one flag this would be an entirely different story, yet this flag is tied only to a particular time of systemic racism and oppression by whites.


Update May 2021: Research suggests use of a national flag has damaging impact to social cohesion

“Flags are tricky,” Kemmelmeier says. “If you allude to a collective and say, ‘This is us,’ there’s always somebody that’s not included.”

Decades of research has demonstrated that simply assigning a symbol, such as a flag, to an arbitrary group can cause a hardening of attitudes. A study published in 2016 by social psychologists Shannon Callahan and Alison Ledgerwood found that people perceived others as less warm and more threatening if the group was assigned a flag. “A consistent picture emerges,” writes David Smith, a psychology lecturer from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. “Flags bond insiders but make outsiders feel unwelcome.”

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