POLITICS
09/30/2015 06:32 pm ET | Updated Dec 21, 2016

Jeb Bush Just Gave A Middle Finger To The Entire Native American Community

Bush says the name of Dan Snyder's team isn't offensive to him. But this isn't just about football.

GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush is totally fine with Washington's NFL team using an un-trademarkable, dictionary-defined racial slur as its name, he said Wednesday.

“I don’t think [they] should change it,” the former Florida governor said on “The Arena,” a Sirius XM radio program that will premiere later this week, according to ABC News. “But again, I don’t think politicians ought to be having any say about that, to be honest with you. I don’t find it offensive. Native American tribes generally don’t find it offensive.”

It's good to know that a white man isn't offended by a term that's never been used to denigrate him and never will be. But Bush's casual dismissal of the mascot issue is telling.

“It’s a sport, for crying out loud. It’s a football team," he said. "Washington has a huge fan base -- I’m missing something here, I guess.”

Bush is right about that, at least. What he's missing is that the controversy over Washington's team can't be separated from the broader issues Native Americans face. Not being Native American himself, Bush has the privilege of being able to view this as just an issue of a "sport" and a "football team." But for the communities that are actually affected, comments like Bush's are just further evidence that most of the people who hold power in the U.S. don't really care about them.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Late last year, the on-field humiliation of Washington's football team was briefly overshadowed by increasingly vocal disapproval of the team name and the cartoonish, regressive imagery associated with it. This cropped up even among the team's faithful. But as the NFL season came to an end and people's minds shifted away from football, the issue faded from national attention.

Groups like Change the Mascot and the National Congress of American Indians have been working to keep the issue visible. If billionaire team owner Daniel Snyder and the overwhelming -- though slowly shrinking -- majority of Americans who support the name are any indication, there's plenty of work left to do. Especially in the face of a particularly misguided argument in favor of keeping things the way they are.

Many of the team's supporters have traditionally relied on ignorance or racism to argue that they shouldn't have to undergo the inconvenience of changing anything. Last year, however, Snyder apparently realized that his organization's image problem was real, and that he needed a new strategy beyond simply telling Native Americans they were wrong to be offended. So he attempted to reinvent himself as a well-intentioned supporter of the people to whom his team's name offensively refers, creating a foundation intended to help indigenous communities.

"[Native Americans] have genuine issues they truly are worried about, and our team's name is not one of them," Snyder wrote in a March 2014 letter announcing the program. This argument, and variations of it, have been tossed around by the team's supporters -- and even among some Native Americans -- for years, and Snyder's letter gave it new life in the nationwide debate.

Polling has suggested that Snyder and Bush are actually wrong about how Native Americans feel about the name. But more importantly, says Erik Stegman, associate director of the Half in Ten Education Fund at the Center for American Progress, they fail to grasp how the team's name and the other, so-called "genuine issues" are fundamentally connected.

"If people that we're trying to convince on these policy issues still have the vision of the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians or any of these others as their reference point for an actual group of people, that's a problem," Stegman told The Huffington Post last year. "It impacts how [Native people] can advocate on all of these other very important issues."

This is particularly significant, because Snyder is right about one thing: Native Americans face many challenges beyond his team's name. Less than a century removed from some of the darkest chapters of U.S. policy on Native Americans, 25 percent of Native people now live in poverty. Over 16 percent of Native adults have diabetes, one of the highest rates among any ethnic group in the world. Native lands are regularly auctioned off by Congress in sweetheart deals for resource extraction. Native women are over 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the U.S. And drug and alcohol abuse run rampant in indigenous communities around the nation.

It's hard to make progress on any of these issues when much of the country is only aware of Native Americans on game day, and even then, only as caricatures. To many people in American Indian country, no amount of Snyder's money can help address these problems so long as he says he will "NEVER" -- capital letters his -- change the team's name. If Snyder genuinely cared about Native communities, opponents of the name argue, he would acknowledge the role his team plays in marginalizing them.

Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Indian Nation and an occasional Huffington Post blogger, says that instead, Snyder and other supporters of these names and mascots are denying Native Americans a simple request to be seen as equals in the eyes of their non-Native peers.

"They're so desensitized, they think Indian people are not real people; our children and our concerns are not real to them," Halbritter told HuffPost last year. "They don't think [the debate] is even real, they don't even think it's even worth bringing up or talking about. We're not human beings, we're not even part of humanity. And that's the problem. They think of us as just something to entertain them, or mascots -- relics out of a museum."

With only 5.2 million Native Americans in the U.S. -- 2 percent of the total population, according to the 2012 Census, with many of them concentrated on reservations in certain areas of the country -- these representations can be particularly hard to recalibrate. Halbritter said that teams like Snyder's feed these misperceptions and allow the broader public to ignore the real power these words and images have on actual people.

"Denigrating Native Americans as mascots dehumanizes them and it pretends that their challenges are simply not important, that their children are not as important as white children or any other race," he said. "At the heart of the issues in Indian Country and virtually every organization of people in the world is what they think of themselves. ... It goes to the issue of our children and how they're affected and how their minds are shaped about how [they] think about themselves."

The next generation of Native youth is regularly highlighted in the debate over offensive imagery, and its members have become increasingly visible as primary stakeholders and leading activists. Last year, Stegman published a report on the social and psychological effects of these mascots and team names on Native youth. It concluded that the presence of organizations built on Native American stereotypes negatively affects the self-esteem and mental health of young Native Americans, who are already faced with inferior educational resources and a suicide rate 2.5 times higher than the national average.

"School is a tough place, and when you're a young person having to deal with your identity, in this case as Native people, these representations really matter," Stegman said. "They impact the way that you learn, they impact how you interact with your fellow classmates and they impact how you feel about your own culture and your own community."

People like Snyder often suggest that Native Americans tackle their most pressing challenges directly, rather than focus on a team name. But Native Americans have no intention of choosing between addressing the individual issues and combating the broader environment of disrespect, ignorance and marginalization that allows those issues to continue.

Late last year, representatives from the nation's then 566 federally recognized Native tribes gathered at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss the state of affairs in Indian country and draw up a blueprint for moving forward.

Native youth representing 230 of these tribes met in Washington this July for the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering, where they continued the discussion, just a day after the federal government recognized a 567th tribe, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe.

The backlash again Native mascots and team names has become more high-profile in the past few years, but Native Americans have been fighting these battles for decades. And few today underestimate the formidable opponent they face in Snyder and his billion-dollar profit machine -- which, as ThinkProgress noted on Wednesday, helps bankroll candidates like Bush. Empathy is hard enough to come by as it is, and in this case, a small minority group is working to win over a sports-obsessed public that feels entitled to a team name and mascot that really aren't theirs to define.

But both Stegman and Halbritter are optimistic that the debate is at least headed in the right direction. They see a growth in productive conversations about these damaging depictions of Native people, and those conversations in turn have produced some tangible victories. A number of schools have ditched their "Redskins" mascots in the past two years, in many cases following impassioned testimony from Native American students and residents.

These are small steps forward, but Halbritter said last year that if American principles hold true, much larger steps will eventually follow.

"That's one of the fundamental values and principles of this country, that it finds its way to gravitate to doing what's the right thing," he said. "And that's what this is about. It's trying to get the consciousness of America to line up with the principles of America so that the needle aligns to the pole of right and people just do the right thing."

This article has been edited and updated from an earlier version originally published in December 2014.

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