Now that the Washington Redskins pro football franchise has been eliminated from the National Football League playoffs, it is appropriate to comment on the name “Redskins” and how so inappropriate its use is in the public sphere.
Recently, Gov. Jerry Brown recognized this inappropriateness by signing the legislative bill California Racial Mascots Act, initiated by state Assemblyman Luis Alejo, to forbid such a racial slur as a mascot name for any high school in California. The governor’s signature forced Tulare Union High School to end its long heritage of using that name for its athletic teams.
The outrage from the citizens of Tulare was loud and clear. This outrage was given journalistic support from a Fresno Bee sports writer who said that government has no business meddling in the local affairs of the Tulare school district.
In contrast, various national television sports commentators and outlets have decided to refer to the Washington Redskins only as the Washington team. CBS Sports news anchor James Brown has made a public call for the Washington team to drop its racial slur. Phil Simms, sports analyst on the NFL Channel, said he plans to avoid using this racial slur. Some newspapers sports editors, such as Don Shelton of The Seattle Times, have decided not to use that racial slur within their sports pages.
The U.S. Patent Office rescinded its protective trademark for the Washington team’s profitable marketing of Redskin as a commodity.
If I had my wish, it would be that communities make their own reassessment of those traditions emanating from a tragic past of manifest destiny and voluntarily change their misguided traditions without government meddling. Is it so hard to change a sports nickname from Redskins to Warriors, which would allow for a team to keep the same logo and regalia? A change such as this coheres a community rather than divides it.
In a way, the outrage and protest of the Tulare citizens reflect the decades-long national anger at how the federal government “meddled” in the local “state rights” affairs of southern states that wanted to maintain their peculiar heritage of racial inequality. This heritage expressed itself in a variety of racial slurs and attendant racial violence in which black lives were lost and did not matter at all. Dylann Roof, who walked into a church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine black people in a Bible study, embodied this outrage.
This type of outrage is an ultra-conservative and a sometimes deadly reaction to a changing America from a Norman Rockwell aesthetic to a more diverse and multicultural America. Accepting this change, one could Photoshop and put some folks of color within the beautiful images of a Rockwell painting. This is surely better than crying, “I want my country back,” or “I will make America great again.”
Heritage always has a historical context. With the Washington team, its storied owner, George P. Marshall, instructed the team’s band to play the song “Dixie” before games in hopes of locking in the upper South sports market. Informing the present owner, Dan Snyder, that the state of California paid out close to a million dollars in the late 19th century for “Redskin scalps” has made little impact on how he places profit over humanity. The infamous phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” derives, in part, from the dehumanization that enabled this awful history.
Yes, various Native American/Indian tribal leaders have been reimbursed financially for supporting the use of this racial slur or the derogatory image of non-Indians sports fans in what they think are authentic Indian regalia but, many times, are merely stereotypical costumes. It is essentially the same as some blacks thinking it is OK to use an intra-cultural slur such as the N-word, even without financial reimbursement.
Neither is right when it divides communities instead of bringing them together. Note that the U.S. Patent Office has also refused to trademark “Naturally Intelligent God Gifted Africans.” Bringing communities together with a shared vision of future cooperative possibilities can only be achieved when a negative heritage of the past is dead and buried or placed in museums.
Malik Simba is an emeritus professor in the Department of History/Africana Studies at Fresno State.