“You’re the emblem of the land I love, the home of the free and the brave!” – George M. Cohan, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”
“But the system is racist, when the murderers are acquitted – so we ride in the streets, then you say we shouldn’t have did it” – KRS-One, “American Flag”
The American flag means different things to different people.
That much was evident last week at Sonoma Valley High School when what should have been the simple ordering of a campus club T-shirt morphed into a divisive barometer of community patriotism – who’s using it, and who’s abusing it.
It all started when SVHS administrators learned members of the school’s Future Farmers of America student group were placing orders for the program’s 2017 shirts – cotton T’s whose design sported a vertical American flag with an eagle and FFA emblem emblazoned across.
School officials say they hadn’t seen or approved the design and wanted to tread carefully before marching ahead.
In these times of national anthem protests over racial injustice and debates over who’s American enough and who isn’t, everyday symbols like the Stars and Stripes are readily hijacked by some who’d prefer to convey nationalism and intimidation rather than hope and unity. And so school officials got nervous.
It was through this at-times toxic political lens that SVHS officials took a cautious approach to the student group ordering a patriotic shirt as part of a school with a 59 percent non-white student population – a population that is witnessing the kind of mainstreaming of minority disenfranchisement that hasn’t been seen in a generation.
As SVHS Principal Kathleen Hawing told the Index-Tribune, “In light of the current sentiment in the country and a desire to be sensitive to how some classmates might perceive the new shirts, we want FFA to ‘pause’ in its plans.”
But these days, no sensitive pause goes unpunished.
Within hours, if not minutes, of the faculty deliberations on the FFA shirt a bogus rumor went viral that the school was banning the American flag.
Not only does it appear school officials failed to foresee the obvious potential fallout from putting a hand-check on the flag shirts, but when the fallout started happening, they handled it clumsily.
Reports that other flag-themed apparel was getting the once-over around campus began circulating and the Index-Tribune was soon receiving emails that largely followed along the lines of this one:
“No more American flag over Sonoma Valley High School because it is offensive to the Hispanic students who are not legal!”
A smattering of other comments sent to the paper included such gems as: “Kathleen Hawing should be fired immediately”; “disgusted and appalled”; “national symbols being trampled!” “if it offends you, don’t live here”; “love it or leave it”; and the refreshingly direct, “get the f—k out!”
These, it should be stressed, were from adults, not high school students.
One foreboding email declared, “We’ve bent over to appease the America haters long enough… I’m taking a stand.”
Yeah, wherever SVHS officials got the idea that gestures of so-called patriotism can be intimidating sure beats me.
Lost in the firestorm of SVHS fumbling and “I’m not a racist, but…” emails was the fact that the actual shirt design is pretty innocuous. It’s one of the livelier choices from an FFA-apparel website filled with mostly benign cotton-knit options. “It looked cool and represented FFA,” was how member Oliver Cannard described the decision-making process.