Update, June 18, 2014: On Wednesday, the US Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Redskins' six federal trademarks.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Every once in a while a small controversy comes along that helps explain a big problem. This National Football League season has provided such a controversy. The name of Washington D.C.'s football team, the Redskins, is under fire. "Redskins" is an offensive term and therefore inappropriate for the team representing our nation's capital. That's kind of obvious, right?
Most Republicans don't think so. They defend the name, as they do other Native American-based team names, such as the college football champion Florida State Seminoles, calling them tokens of "honor." They claim that the names celebrate a "heritage" and "tradition" of "bravery" and "warrior-spirit," and they publicly wonder: What's the problem?
The Onion, that fine news source, captured it in one neat, snide sentence: "A new study… confirmed that the name of the Washington Redskins is only offensive if you take any amount of time whatsoever to think about its actual meaning." So what's keeping Republicans from thinking about it?
For one thing, Republicans tend to wear a set of blinders, crafted and actively maintained by the party's functionaries and its media priesthood. They also suffer from mental roadblocks shared by American whites more generally, including a thin, often myth-based "knowledge" about Native Americans. Collectively, all of this blinds Republicans to what it's like to be on the receiving end of power at home and abroad.
That said, the GOP's power brokers know the party is facing a demographic time bomb, so why do they let their media minions form an offensive line to protect the Redskins name? Nationally, the Republicans' short-term hopes and long-term survival may hinge on whether they can manage to make the party welcoming to non-whites. Yet they proudly wear these blinders, as I once did, continuing to "honor" American Indians–as they never would a team called the Whiteskins, the Brownskins, the Blackskins, or the Yellowskins. Here's a little breakdown on why.
Blinder 1: Intent Is Everything
As I have written previously, Republicans have a convenient belief that when it comes to racism, it's all about intent. With the Redskins name, this is a particularly powerful blinder because, as one sportscaster said, "I strongly believe that there is zero intent to offend Native Americans among Redskins fans or football fans in general."
In the words of a National Review writer, "No one picks a team name as a means of disparagement." Similarly, Human Events columnist John Hayward claimed that "[n]obody names their football team the Losers or the Wimps." Again and again, Republicans in the media sound this chord, effectively saying that if there is no intent to harm, then there's no foul.
Blinder 2: The Messengers
A big reason why conservatives don't like change is the people who push for it. Just look at who's complaining about the Redskins name.
There are Native Americans protesting the name, like the Oneida Tribe's "Change the Mascot" campaign. To a Republican, that means this is, ipso facto, the usual, tedious, "race-card" stuff and another instance of the obsession with identity and victimization. In my Republican days, I would have asked, "Can't you Indians or Native Americans or whatever you want to be called these days see that making your group identity the most important part of your existence denies your individuality? You sink or swim on your own in our meritocracy. How can you thrive if your mind's on the reservation?" (Not that I knew any Native Americans to ask, of course.)
Then there are the cadres of academics (liberals!), foaming at the mouth about "narratives" and "oppression," glorifying relativism, preaching white guilt and feel-bad history, and denying Objective Truth. The American Psychological Association says that such team names promote negative stereotypes, making little Indian kids feel bad about themselves. Boo hoo!
There are also the activists, those unwashed Occupy longhairs who get off on feeling offended for other people, "fabricat[ing] outrage," creating a "manufactured controversy."
There's the feared "Liberal Media." A handful of newspapers, the alternative rag Washington City Paper, and several liberal outlets like Slate, the New Republic, and Mother Jones now refuse to use the Redskins name, instead inelegantly referring to "Washington's football team." Most don't even cover sports, but they can't miss a chance to pontificate!
Singled out for the most angst was sportscaster Bob Costas–for speaking out against the name during a Sunday Night Football broadcast. Glenn Beck's response was to call him "senile" and a "sanctimonious piece of crap."
And then there are the politicians. Guess which team's jersey they're wearing? There's the Washington city council (no Republicans there, of course!) getting all righteous with a unanimous resolution urging that the team be renamed something non-offensive. There are Democrats in Congress lining up to do their bit by pushing a bill to strip the very right of a team to trademark its name if it's offensive to Indians!
Worst of all is the "Trinity of Evil," the "Socialist Trifecta": Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and above all President Obama. They've all come out against the Redskins name.
See a common thread here? Democrats. Liberals. Progressives. Minorities. The Left.
The other team.
These messengers could say that the sky is blue, and the natural Republican inclination would be to think that they were lying for partisan gain. The Enemy is relentless, implacable, and vast. It must be stopped.
Blinder 3: The First Amendment Right to Offend
No need to think about why a name or epithet might offend, when you can spring straight to the defense of the "right to offend." Poke around Republican media and you will see many articles defending this "sacred" right.
Here's the rhetorical formula: Sure, some people offend others on purpose, and yes they're jerks, but most people don't. It's too bad if you're offended, but what's important is to protect the constitutional right to offend–because isn't that what the First Amendment is actually all about? The real danger in this: letting some thin-skinned crowd destroy our collective liberties through intimidation. (Optional: insert comment about PC or liberal "fascism" here, or the slippery slope to Nazi Germany.) So toughen up. Sticks and stones, etc…
(This one's easy for them because a 2004 survey suggested that a significant majority of Indians weren't bothered by the name. Of course they don't mention that the main survey had only 768 respondents, or that the groups fighting the name in court include the National Congress of American Indians, the largest intertribal organization–which represents more than 250 groups with a combined enrollment of 1.2 million–as well as the Cherokee, Comanche, and Seminole tribes. It's not just the Oneida.)
Blinder 4: Feelings are for Sissies
There remains the frightening possibility that some Republican might try to imagine how a Native American might feel about teams or mascots appropriating (or insulting) his culture. Lest that nice Republican go off the proverbial reservation, there is a ready-made prophylactic that can be stated in these simple words: "Don't be a sissy."
This prophylactic is built into Republicans definitions of masculinity. One of the first things you learn as a boy in a Republican community is that manhood is of the utmost importance, and the prime way to be a man is to avoid anything effeminate. Feelings, emotions, and all that other irrational stuff like empathy are girly.
Republicans love to knock Bill Clinton for saying, "I feel your pain." We are living in "The Age of Feelings," wrote National Review columnist Dennis Prager, making fun of people who might take issue with the Redskins name. That magazine recently ran an article entitled "Against Empathy." The implication is clear: Feelings are for losers–that is, liberals, those sensitivity-preaching, holier-than-thou, bleeding-heart, sad sacks of emotions. Grow a pair.
Shared Mental Roadblocks
There are, of course, other reasons why so many Republicans are blind to the wrongness of the Redskins name that can't be blamed on the GOP. There are at least three big mental roadblocks in the way of Republicans coming to terms with the impact of "Redskins" (not to speak of racism itself). Unlike the blinders, these roadblocks are shared by white Americans across the political spectrum.
Roadblock 1: Naming Practices
There have been more than 3,000 teams with Native American-based names and mascots in this country. Of them, some 900 remain. They're common and they've been around a long time; the Redskins team name dates to the early 1930s. Once something is in the vernacular, it becomes anodyne, and people don't notice it's wrong unless they feel the sting or someone makes a stink. And even then, people may think that it's okay to use a word like "redskin" as a team name while also knowing that it's verboten in conversation. (An article in National Review had this typical sub-headline: "The team name is an anachronism, but a harmless one.")
Roadblock 2: A Myth-Based "Education"
It's easy to say that a name honors a culture when you don't know anything about that culture.
What are we taught in school? Children put on feathers and construction paper cut-outs in holiday plays that teach a mythology for Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. We whites were taught as children that "we" were the Pilgrims, the stars of the story, and "they," the Indians, were the nice supporting cast who helped us get through a rough winter so that we could do our beautiful colonial thing. And so we said thanks over turkey.
Later on, I can recall a segment in social studies class on the Trail of Tears, and I'm sure there was some talk of treaties and reservations, but that was about it for my education. Did we delve into the size or nature of Native American communities here when "we" arrived? I came away with the impression that the land the colonists found was pretty close to empty, and not just because of disease–nothing like the estimated millions who lived in sophisticated civilizations in what became the United States. Did we talk about the Indian Wars? Not really, other than something about the battle of Little Bighorn and you-know-who. (Hint: he had golden hair and died gallantly.)
Not knowing anything other than this supporting-cast mythology, it's all too easy to "celebrate" "our" Indian heritage. I could exult in lovely Indian geographic names, thinking that a name like Sioux City, Iowa, meant "City in Honor of the Sioux." But it wasn't until I scrapped my Republican blinders and stopped censoring myself from reading writers like James Loewen that I learned the Sioux don't even call themselves "Sioux." They're the Dakotas (or Lakotas), meaning "allies" or "people." The word "Sioux" is an abbreviation of "Nadouessioux," which was how Canadian French colonists pronounced a word used by the rival Ottawa or Ojibwe tribes. It may have meant something like "foreigner" (as in "speaking a foreign language"), but the Dakotas think it meant "snake" or "enemy" and was a derogatory "term of hatred."
How about "City Where the Enemy Snakes Lived Before They Got Wiped Out and Pushed Onto Reservations by Whites and Their Diseases"?
Roadblock 3: Never Been a Loser
How can a Republican keep a straight face and write that "[n]obody names their football team the Losers" when talking about Native American-based team names? Even with our crummy educations on the subject, there's no way anyone can claim that Indians have come through the past centuries as history's winners. But Republicans remain blind because they are almost all white, and white people–or at least non-immigrant white men–have never been a losing tribe in this country.
Sure, plenty of whites may feel victimized one way or another when life doesn't go their way, and it's not only Republicans who attribute it to race. Some feel excluded from the white establishment, but that's a class issue. Some believe that their failure to snag a job or a spot in college is due to affirmative action, but that's because they believe they are being denied something that is already rightly theirs–an entitlement, if you will. But this is nothing like being in a losing tribe.
Whites don't get pulled over by the police for driving in black neighborhoods, and where they do get pulled over, they seldom get dragged out of the car and shoved against the hood. Whites don't get their resumes chucked in the trash because of unfamiliar, group-pride-oriented names. White men as a group have not had to fight for their basic rights in this country for generations. (Universal white manhood suffrage dates to the 1820s.)
This has massive ripple effects for Republican politics and policy. Never having been a victim of history, Republicans have no intuitive understanding of victimhood or institutional racism or glass ceilings or other common experiences for people of color (and women).
If more Republicans had an intuitive feel for the experience of American life as a minority (or a woman), they'd probably spend way less time making fun of "the politics of victimization" or promoting their version of "melting pot" America–a country where, no matter your color, you are supposed to dress, act, and aspire to be white. And the GOP might actually stand a chance of figuring out how to attract more than a token number of non-white voters nationally.
White Skin in the Game
So why don't Republicans just cave on this one and stop looking like jerks? Even conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recognizes that the name "Redskins" is defunct. What do they have to lose?
To recognize that names matter, however, means recognizing that human experience matters–not just the experiences of approved people, but of all people. Republican ideology is based on protecting its in-group, fighting off solidarity with out-groups, and claiming that success and failure in American life is a moral story of meritocracy alone–to the extent, of course, that government regulations don't get in the way.
As much as Republicans may formulaically say that they care about everyone, the party is scared to death of empathy. It could lead Republicans to get past their false moral narrative and see the many ways that their policies harm minorities, women, and the poor. Empathy could even lead Republicans into embarrassing historical terrain where they might learn that, through germs and violence, whites killed off millions of Indians, and that "Manifest Destiny" is just a marketing catchphrase hiding the fact that the United States broke off from one empire and immediately started its own on this continent. And once they recognize that, they might even start noticing our empire abroad or getting serious about equality at home. Next thing you know, they might start pushing to increase taxes on the rich and funding for Food Stamps or Head Start or Medicaid… Republican Armageddon.
Jeremiah Goulka, a TomDispatch regular and former RAND Corporation analyst, writes about American politics and culture, focusing on security, race, and the Republican Party. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him through his website jeremiahgoulka.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.