The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has ruled (we think that’s the word) that Washington, DC’s NFL team, the Redskins, can no longer trademark that name, saying: “the term ‘Redskins’ was disparaging of Native Americans, when used in relation to professional football services”. Five Native Americans brought the case to the Patent Office saying the name is disparaging. The upshot is that the team can no longer control who uses the name or profit from its use. (The image of the “redskin” that goes along with the name is still, somehow, protected.)
The team’s owners are contesting this, and will appeal; in fact, this decision seems to have been made before and overturned by a federal district court. So there is a chance that the name will go on, and continue making money for the team.
The list of team names, from professional sports to high school, that use Native American references is very long. “Indians” is a name used by hundreds of school teams; “Chiefs” and “Braves” are second in popularity. In most cases, it seems clear that the name was chosen to represent the team’s strength and fearlessness, and was considered a shout-out to the Native Americans who possessed those qualities. Usually the image that represented the team was a chieftain in full feather headdress, or a “brave” with one feather. On the high school level, the image was usually neutral; it’s at the college and professional level that they are uniformly racist (one notes the Cleveland Indians image and the (now defunct) Philadelphia Warriors image in particular).
In the case of the Washington team, its owners have leaned heavily on the historical defense: any name that’s 80 years old must be innocent. This is an oft-used argument that we cannot make sense of. There are many words that have been around a long time that are slurs. In 1890, Webster’s dictionary listed “redskin” as a “contemptuous” term for Native Americans. That predates the team choosing it as its name. But the league is standing by it: Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, said the name is not a slur:
“The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years. And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all. I think that is part of the issue with the question is that it is constantly being sort of put into a point-blank, yes-or-no, yes-or-no kind of context when that’s not the reality of the situation that we’re dealing with.”
Often here at the HP we present a block quote and break it down through analysis. We’ve done it for George Washington and William Jennings Bryan. Now we will attempt to do it for Adolpho Birch:
“The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years.”
—If something is old, it can’t be racist. People in olden times were not racist.
“And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all.”
—Instead of the name being… black and white, as it were, it is a complex issue where everyone’s opinion has equal weight and a solution exists that will please and reflect the wishes of everyone, even if they are diametrically opposed.
“I think that is part of the issue with the question is that it is constantly being sort of put into a point-blank, yes-or-no, yes-or-no kind of context when that’s not the reality of the situation that we’re dealing with.”
—The question of the name is an issue that is usually described as dichotomous, dichotomous, dichotomous when that’s not realistic.
We can see that our analysis makes good sense of Birch’s sputtering and panicky nonsense. The answer to “is that name racist” cannot be “yes” or “no”. That’s too point-blank. Reality is that nothing is ever clear, even to people who are clear that the name offends them. In “reality”, the only virtue of Birch’s “argument” is that it puts the onus of the racism on us, the public who have sat back and accepted the racist team name for so long. For 80 years, the team was allowed to perpetrate racism, and that’s not just the team’s fault.
So it can only be hoped that a district court does not overturn this latest ruling, and that a point-blank rebuke to the league’s and the team’s “complex” defense of a “contextual” racial slur is taken down.