The Washington Redskins–no more?

Posted on June 19, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Economics, Politics | Tags: , , , |

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.

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Native Americans: they were people!

Posted on May 9, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America | Tags: , , , |

I can’t remember where I was reading someone complaining that Native Americans are presented in K-12 American history textbooks as a kind of flora or fauna, interesting wildlife that briefly served as a backdrop for early English settlers before disappearing.

You know the drill: you learn about the “tribes” that lived in eastern North America, what foods they ate, what they made their houses out of, how they hunted and traveled, and what clothing and jewelry they wore. You learn about their animal gods, and how they respected and worshipped nature. Maybe you read one “tribe’s” creation story, telling how the world was made, that involves the animal gods.

Just imagine if this was how the English settlers who came to North America were described.

“They wore clothing of cotton and leather that they made on machines called looms in their homes. Their homes were made of wooden posts and plaster, and sometimes had two stories. They ate wheat bread that they made in brick ovens, and drank mild ale made from native apples. They lived in family units of a father, mother, and children. Many families lived together in villages. They worshipped a God who had once taken human form, celebrating his existence by eating crackers and drinking wine during their weekly worship service. They rode on horses or went on foot when traveling.”

Of course, this is not how the English are described. We learn about their political system and arguments, the international wars they were involved in, religious differences and religious wars, their changing economy, the different policies and goals of their monarchs, and their reasons and objectives for settling the New World.

In short, we see the flux and dynamism of their culture, in relation to other cultures. Unlike the Native Americans, who are presented as being exactly the same in 1620 as they were 15,000 years ago. And, except for quaint and sort-of interesting differences in clothing and housing, Americans in the northeast are presented as exactly the same as Americans in the southeast. Native Americans are represented as uniform, unchanging, static, and simple.

So the easy way to improve the representation of Native Americans in American history textbooks would be to depict them just as the English are depicted. Talk about the different groups in the northeast, for example; their ever-changing relationships to each other, their wars, and their alliances. Compare the Narragansett-Pequot-Mohegan triangle to the constantly shifting alliances and wars between England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. Talk about American religious practices, but only in the context of how those practices impacted relations with neighboring groups, political choices, and worldview.

Explain that Native Americans developed a particular type of warfare based on their goals, resources, and religion–just like the English did. Say that on the eve of English settlement in the American northeast, 16th-century American political alliances and religious policy had been devastated by a smallpox pandemic brought unwittingly by European fishermen, who had been interacting with Americans for over 100 years before English settlers came. Explain that their knowledge of Europeans shaped the American reaction to the first settlers.

Show how the Europeans had behaved in a way the Americans recognized: constantly shifting alliances. Sometimes the fishermen landed and just wanted to peacefully trade, even intermarry. But sometimes they landed and took prisoners and made war. This the Americans were used to; they understood that type of politics. They were not in awe of the Europeans, but simply incorporated them into their existing worldview, and treated them accordingly.

Do all this, and then when you get Pilgrims arriving in 1620, you have an America that makes sense. You have real people–the Americans–interacting with real people–the English. You can make more sense of the difficulties each side eventually faced in accommodating each other. You get Americans.

That would be a good textbook. There must be someone out there in a position to write it.

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