The name of the Washington NFL team is “not an issue” the owner, Dan Snyder said in a rare public statement recently. This is entirely true, but not in the way he intends. The name of one professional sports team is only a small example of the real issue; the institutional racism that allows Native Americans to be publicly mocked in ways that would be immediately recognized as prejudice and discrimination if directed at any other group. These stereotypes are so much a part of American culture that not all of those who have Native American heritage actively oppose them since they too live in a world of conflicting messages, and may have internalized these stereotypes. More than a century after the practice of psychiatry first identified the subconscious, it should be understood by anyone that what people say often has little to do with the biases that actually determine their behavior. However this does not mean that this is an issue manufactured by white liberals, as many claim. Native American organizations, in particular the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has always been at the forefront of appeals to end stereotypes.
What non-native people really think about Native Americans is demonstrated by the 2013 production of The Lone Ranger with claims that the character of Tonto was reinvented, but invoking most of the stereotypes of a stoic, monosyllabic warrior that movies have always used. It is demonstrated in the use of Native American imagery as nothing more than a costume that may be worn by white people such as Christina Fallin, daughter of the governor of Oklahoma, wearing a war bonnet as hipster fashion with no thought of the sacred meanings of the artifacts she misappropriates. And most of all it is demonstrated by sports fans of both supporting and opposing teams that also appropriate native culture, the latter making references to scalping, drunkenness, and the “Trail of Tears”. It was very graphically demonstrated at a recent Cleveland Indians game when a fan in Chief Wahoo redface confronted an anti-mascot protestor, bringing to life a cartoon from a decade ago that was captioned “But I’m honoring you, dude!”.
With only rare exceptions, no other ethnic group is singled out for this honor. A new word has been coined, mascotry, to refer to the acting out of stereotypes in sports and to emphasize that it is a form of bigotry that can only be understood in the context of civil rights. The US Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) issued an advisory opinion in 2001 calling for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools as insensitive, possibly in violation of anti-discrimination laws, and “particularly disturbing in school settings where students should be learning to interact respectfully with people from different cultures”. For decades there has been a steady decline in the number of public schools with Indian mascots, usually being changed one at a time with little official action except in a few western states with significant Native American populations. Prejudices are often dispelled only by personal interaction, but white culture has little direct contact with authentic Native American culture. Attempting a more effective and widespread solution, in 2013 the state of Michigan Department of Civil Rights filed a complaint with the US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) asking that all use of American Indian mascots be prohibited in schools due to scientific evidence that the imagery negatively impacts student learning and creates a hostile environment in violation of Article VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The OCR dismissed this complaint due to the lack of evidence that specific students were harmed by specific incidents.
This is a strict interpretation of a principle that, in order to be a violation of Federal law, it is necessary to show not only harm but also the intent to do harm. The evidence of harm is so overwhelming that professional groups representing psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, teachers, and school counselors have all issued resolutions similar to the USCCR. The idea of intentionality does not recognize the realities of institutional racism that have been recognized in other civil rights cases. The general public also associates racism with overt acts or statements. Thus the owner of the LA Clippers, Donald Sterling, has been swiftly condemned and punished by the NBA for making private statements indicating his prejudice against black people, yet prejudice against Native Americans continues because everyone does it, and it is just done “in fun”. Being made fun of has been recognized as something else, a form of bullying. The fans’ responses to charges of racism are often the same as those made by bullies, that their targets are just being over-sensitive, that it is only political correctness and anyone offended should “suck it up”.
There is also the charge that since the ideal is to be “color-blind”, no group should be seeking special treatment. This is the old theory of America as a melting pot, which was never true and does not apply to indigenous peoples. For Native Americans, forced assimilation was part to the genocidal policies of the US government for centuries. The racism that remains precludes the teaching of the true history of this country, in spite of recent movements toward multiculturalism as an alternative to color-blindness. As long as there is mascotry, the United States is a hostile environment for Native Americans.
This was recognized in 2005 by the NCAA, which implemented a policy regarding “hostile and abusive” mascots that eliminated most of the names and images used by colleges. Only five remain because they have established agreements with specific tribes (Catawba, Chippewa, Choctaw, Seminole, Ute) to continue to use their names. While recognizing the rights granted by tribal sovereignty, this practice is not without its critics when fans at non-native schools continue to behave in a stereotypical manner. However no one should question the right of schools on or near reservations having a majority of Native American students continuing to call themselves Braves, Chiefs, Warriors, or even Redskins. Supporters of the Washington team may point out the Red Mesa High School Redskins in Arizona as proof that the name is not offensive, but the principal of that school states that the name should not be used outside of Indian Country.
Unlike public schools, there are fewer legal options for eliminating racism in private businesses; the pressure can only be economic unless the owners have good intentions. The team that is now the Golden State Warriors started to change their image in the 1970s, eliminating Native American references; and of course Abe Pollin changed the name of the Washington Bullets to the Wizards because he simply decided it was the right thing to do. Apparently Dan Snyder’s way of thinking precludes such a decision, and none of the major sponsors have come forward to recognize that they are failing to implement their own commitments to civil rights. The only question is, are these defenders of mascotry, mainly rich white men, merely the unknowing carriers of institutional racism or are they bullies? After being told repeatedly by organizations such as the NCAI, which represents hundreds of tribes, that “we are offended, not honored”, how can any plead ignorance?
The offensiveness of the word redskin is not a matter to be decided by any number of public opinion polls. Perhaps no one thinks about what defined in the dictionary means, but it is not an ivory tower academic exercise. The writers of dictionaries look at how words are actually used, and have concluded that the context for decades has been usually disparaging; which means that the word redskin has been used in a negative context, accompanied by “dirty, drunken, savage, murdering” more often than “noble, friendly”. The linguistic history of the term redskin based upon its origins in the early colonial period is no longer relevant; the current meaning comes from how it was most often used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A tool provided by Google, the NGRAM viewer, provides a historical perspective, graphing the frequency of a word usage. The word “redskin” peaked in 1895, soon after the Wounded Knee Massacre. A study of the word’s usage done by Bruce Stapleton for his book Redskins: Racial Slur or Symbol of Success? indicates that “redskin” became more pejorative during the period just before it became the name of the pro football team.
When Dan Snyder calls the name a “badge of honor”, it really means that he and all the other die-hard fans think that a mascot that evokes an image of strength and courage is positive, without acknowledging not only the negative connotations that are just beneath the surface, but also the condescension of expecting anyone to be honored to be a mascot. Negative associations are quickly invoked when Native American protestors confront fans, who respond with disparaging comments and epithets. There is also the double-talk about the word meaning something entirely different for football fans than it does for anyone else, and not referring to Native Americans. If a Redskin is a football player, why do fans dress in feathers and war paint?
In the context of institutional racism, public opinion polls are nothing more than a measure of implicit bias. When dealing with widespread bias, the opinions of the majority are not relevant. Civil Rights laws are intended to protect minorities, and it is often only a few that can articulate the unbiased view, and calling them activists does not make what they say untrue. Activists have pushed all of the other movements for social justice until their view becomes the new majority opinion. The growing number of people that have come to an awareness of the problem of mascotry now includes sports commentators and other journalists, elected officials (including President Obama), religious leaders, and many others.
Many continue to cite to the 2004 Annenberg Election Survey that only 9% of self-identified Native Americans are offended by the Redskins name. In addition to this poll being outdated, and the number of technical flaws that bring the results into question, the idea of including a few questions regarding Native Americans on a survey of this type is based upon the a biased assumption that Native Americans are just another assimilated minority within the United States, rather than being hundreds of sovereign nations each with their own language and culture. However, even if taken at face value, anyone who says that it is permissible to be offensive to 9% (about a half million individuals based upon the 2010 census) is revealing himself to be a bully.
It is likely that the US Patent and Trademark Office will once again declare the word redskin unfit to be granted US trademark protection, which will only lead to further legal action and not automatically force a change since the team has other legal protections for their brand. Another 2013 event that was barely mentioned in the media was that a significant number of former FCC officials and legal experts sent a letter to the current FCC chair expressing their position that the use of the team name should be regulated in the same way as any other offensive word. Not being able to use the name publicly would have the desired economic impact, and would only require recognition that a racially sensitive word, while not entirely banned, can only be used when absolutely necessary, not hundreds of times during a broadcast of a game or news report.
Many have already noted that Snyder and the Washington fans are on the wrong side of history. This is the DC tradition that is being upheld, in the spirit of George Preston Marshall, who had to be forced to allow the first black player on his team. The slow attrition of Native American mascots across the country will continue, but should be given a push by recognizing that this is a civil rights issue, not a sports issue. Sponsors and organizations need only recognize that their own current anti-discrimination policies should include the elimination of mascotry. In December, 2013 the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights voted in favor of a resolution advocating this action with regard to the Redskins; in particular with regard to any support for the team provided by government agencies. One fact that has not been addressed is that the Commonwealth of Virginia is a direct sponsor of the team in the form of the Lottery Board. While several politicians in DC and Maryland have come out in favor of changing the name, those in Virginia, where the team has its headquarters and training facility, know where their economic interests lie.
Ironically, there are studies that indicate that the change would make economic sense, because Indian themed teams are not growing in earnings as much as other sports franchises that do not have the baggage of racism. Eventually the Nations Capitol will have a team all can name with pride, but until then none should use its current name. This is happening in Cleveland, where some fans have “de-chiefed” their apparel bearing the offensive logo. However the real significance of these changes would be setting an example for the elimination of mascotry by all teams, particularly in public schools where children are currently learning behaviors that not only reinforce stereotypes of Native Americans, but promote stereotypical and prejudiced thinking towards all minorities. The Federal civil rights laws should be used to promote this progress.