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Why Republicans Cannot Grasp That "Redskins" Is Offensive

Enumerating the blinders that keep Republicans protecting the "honor" of offensive team names.

| Wed Jan. 15, 2014 7:00 AM EST

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"?

Some honor.

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.

Go, Sissies!

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.

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