Racial discrimination in America is as nuanced as the nation's diversity, with communities of color all facing unique forms of bigotry. I teach a class on Racial Profiling Across Communities of Color at Howard University School of Law. In that course, the predominantly African American law students are taught perspectives of racial profiling experienced by other racial groups, for example: the current vilification of Latinos immigrants, particularly those that are undocumented; the continued animus against brown skinned males, particularly Sikh men with turbans and beards viewed as suspicious; the harassment of Muslim women wearing hijabs; and the lessons from the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. We compare and contrast these experiences to the African-American experience.
On the surface, they are vastly different. Each community has its own historical legacy marked by de jure and de facto discrimination, and each community has its own unique story of life in America. However, engaging in an oppression Olympics is counter-productive and not one of the aims of the course; the point is to see what these seemingly unique stories have in common. It is through this process of understanding each other's histories and their role in the larger American history that we begin to see what is required for different communities of color to achieve equality and justice.
That's precisely why the continued battle over the name of a football team is so fascinating, and why it matters to all of us. This battle over the name and mascot of the Washington Redskins has been waging for decades, with lawmakers, civil rights organizations and Native American activists taking a stand with the recognition that the R-word is, at its very essence, a racial slur. In 1971, the Washington Daily News printed an article by Tom Quinn that discussed this controversy, noting that the word is "the white people's way of making a mockery, like they used to do to the blacks in the South." The article notes the increasing respect provided to other minorities when such groups demanded it, yet the team name remains unchanged today.
This week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins organization's trademark for the "Redskins" name and symbol, based on the agency's determination that the name "Redskins" is disparaging to Native Americans. The team issued a statement following the ruling, indicating that they are not worried about losing the dispute in the long run, noting that this has happened before, as a previous cancelation of the trademark was overturned on appeal, where the court held that the initial decision "unsupported by substantial evidence and logically flawed."
However, despite the court's decision, the offensiveness of the word "Redskin" is supported by ample evidence -- including its use in history as a pejorative, its understood meaning and the fact that it is not a commonly used term today. Beyond that, Native Americans, the group specifically targeted by this word, have claimed for decades that "Redskin" is a slur and the team should change its name. However, not only has the name remained in place, but owner Dan Synder has stated that he will NEVER change the name, even after decades of protest and even losing the team's trademark.
But Snyder is not the only person complicit in this deeply troubling saga. When many Native Americans have themselves continued to protest the use of the word as demeaning, why are we so apt to ignore what is staring us in the face? America in 2014 typically condemns racist behavior in the sports world -- just look at what happened to Donald Sterling. However, we've stood idly by for decades when the object of the racism is Native Americans. If the Native American community is troubled enough to protest the name for decades, shouldn't that be enough to signal to all Americans that the use of this word is blatantly offensive and disparaging?
When we reflect on the dark history of Native Americans in this county -- forced assimilation through boarding schools and other means, involuntary sterilizations, relocation under the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the socio-political and economic realities of those living on reservations, we see the common thread between the story of this community and other communities of color in the United States. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote about African-American economic disenfranchisement in the quest for reparations. Like African Americans, Native Americans' lack of economic opportunities is a result of American history, and yet a profound problem of the present day. Coates writes, "An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future."
We will not be able to right every wrong overnight, and ensuring true equality of opportunity for Native Americans will be an ongoing endeavor, renaming the Washington "Redskins" is, at the very least, a step in the right direction, toward morality and justice.