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Racist Slurs Taint U.S. Sports

The fight against Native American mascots and logos is a serious struggle to overturn the stereotypes that were forged in our racist past but still help determine the trajectories of our lives today.
 
 
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The sports media spoke in a unified voice of praise in January when Joe Gibbs was named new coach of the National Football League's Washington Redskins. Gibbs is a Hall of Fame coach who led the Washington franchise to three Super Bowl titles in the '80s and '90s. Many headlines enthused his return would mark a "New Era For the Redskins."

The paradox of that idea is striking: In the 21st century an NFL team is still known by an ethnic slur crafted during the nation's frontier days. The term "Redskins" derives from an old, genocidal practice in this country of scalping Native Americans to earn a bounty. A bounty hunter could prove he had killed a native by turning in a scalp, which often were bloody and called "redskins." This bit of etymology was part of a July 2000 editorial in Maine's Portland Press Herald explaining why it banned the team name from its sports pages.

But in the Washington Post there were few questions raised about coupling the team's new era with a racist slur from an old era. This newspaper that serves the "capital of the free world" still prints that insult in bold headlines. It may be true that stereotyping nonwhites is as American as apple pie and such deeply ingrained cultural habits die hard, but the lack of public outrage at these continuing racial slurs is a bit surprising. After all, there's little debate that the use of people as mascots is, at best, humiliating. As the American Jewish Committee noted in a 1998 report, "The use of mascots is a reflection of the limits of dehumanization our culture will allow." The name of the D.C. NFL franchise is particularly egregious, but it is far from the lone offender among professional sports teams. The Cleveland Indians and their "Chief Wahoo," is another, as are the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Braves. Universities, like North Dakota, Illinois and Florida State among others still sport Native American mascots.

But there is increasing opposition, as well. Other newspapers have banished Native symbols and logos from their pages. Nebraska's Lincoln Journal Star has banned the Redskins name and has stopped printing logos for professional and college sports teams that use or caricature Native American symbols. The Oregonian, the Minnesota St. Cloud Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Kansas City Star also limit publication of Native mascots and images in varying ways.

Many colleges and universities across the country have dropped their Native American mascots, and some schools, like the University of Minnesota, won't compete with out-of-conference schools that use Native American mascots, names or logos. Several public school systems, including those of Dallas and Los Angeles, also prohibit the use of such symbols. Virtually every Native American organization has condemned the use of demeaning images or mascots. In 2003, the Native American Journalists Association urged news organizations to stop using sports mascots and nicknames that depict Native Americans by 2004.

Yet, many Americans seem to believe that their right to use these symbols in frivolous, casual ways is a matter of personal opinion. Had some reporter interrupted the Gibbs veneration fest with a question about the Redskin name, it would have been dismissed as so much political correctness.

But the fight against Native American mascots and logos is a serious struggle to overturn the stereotypes and cultural assumptions that were forged in our racist past but still help determine the trajectories of our lives today. And while more Americans are becoming aware of this struggle to rearrange our cultural iconography, resistance remains strong.

The offense of anti-black images like "Black Sambo," or anti-Latino ones like the "Frito Bandito" only recently have been made obvious to many Americans, and we still find it difficult to understand why Native Americans find sports symbols demeaning. Like those Redskins fans that insist their team's name is an honorable tribute, partisans of mascots everywhere claim their devotion is bias-free. Americans' denial of indigenous peoples' grievances is a product of our sordid role in their history. Americans stole their lands, destroyed their civilizations and damned near killed off all their people. That's a lot of baggage to carry; why not deny?

What I find mystifying, however, is the civil rights community's lack of attention to this issue. One would shudder to think what the NAACP would do with a sports team named the Chicago Jigaboos. We saw how angry many black groups became when the rapper Nelly announced he was marketing something called "Pimp Juice."

African Americans know the difficulty of holding America accountable for the errors of its past, so we should be leading the way in correcting the ongoing error of demeaning mascots. That's why I was happy to see Bill Fletcher Jr. of TransAfrica Forum make the call for other black groups to get involved in the fight to change the name of the Washington Redskins. I join Fletcher in his call and expand it to retire all Native American mascots to the dustbin of discarded stereotypes.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.