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If someone makes a racist slur and no one is offended, can it really be racist? Arguing that there is no reason for team owner Daniel Snyder to change the name of the Washington Redskins, conservatives are busy referring to opinion polls ostensibly showing that most Native Americans don’t find the term offensive. Assuming the validity of these polls, this position reflects a disappointing role reversal for U.S. conservatives.
Aren’t these the people who moan ad nauseum about postmodern moral relativism and instead insist on the capacity for and necessity of truth claims? Who cares if a majority of respondents do not find a term to be offensive? Can something not be objectively offensive?
While the rhetorical question asking how society would respond to, say, the “New York Jews” mainly produces guffaws, this laughter in fact reveals the very absurdity of the idea that Jews could find themselves so ruthlessly denigrated in contemporary society. After all, Jews – insofar as they represent a coherent group – for the most part possess relative economic and political power. Conversely, it is merely seen as normal that a crazed, smiling, cartoon “Indian” should adorn the Cleveland Indians’ caps; Native-Americans don’t have adequate leverage to defend themselves, so how can they be offended? Put differently, Native-Americans can’t afford to be offended.
Given that the 1.7 billion dollar corporation that is the Redskins exists in and on the aftermath of the physical and cultural extermination of Native-Americans, a more historically analogous thought experiment would ask whether it were appropriate for a German soccer club to nickname itself the “Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.”
For, if we accept the significance of history, the name “Redskins” is objectively offensive. The team originated as the Boston “Braves” in 1932 (it was changed to the “Redskins” the following year), an era when numerous “Indian” mascots were created to commemorate the so-called “vanishing Native.” The frontier long settled and the physical genocide of Native-Americans largely complete, attitudes toward Native Americans in the 1920s and 1930s turned nostalgic. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act slowed the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act’s attempted “civilization” of Native-Americans and its transformation of communal lands into individually owned private property. Children’s games of Cowboys and Indians were ubiquitous, and by the late 1930s movie Westerns attained the mass popularity that they had enjoyed in the earlier silent era. John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach – which shared that year’s spotlight with The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind – depicted Native Americans as representing a Western gauntlet whose inaccessible foreignness and ferocity served to purify and unify a hitherto motley group of stagecoach passengers. The frontier, as the racist Frederick Jackson Turner noted, was where society shed its European heritage and, through self-reliance and struggle with (i.e. the destruction of) nature/Native Americans, became American. Ford’s cinematic classic was one of hundreds of films to reproduce notions of Native-Americans as monolithic, preternaturally warlike, and, to be sure, exotic. Europeans’ destruction of Native-Americans made society what it is today. Nothing if not narcissistic, of course U.S. society wants to put Native-American visages on its ball caps and helmets, at least those of its athlete heroes.
There is a story that former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall adopted the name “Redskins” in order to honor the ancestry of his coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz. However, it came out several years ago that Dietz was not in fact Native-American, and instead stole the identity of a missing Lakota man.
Surely, conservatives will reply, the very fact that Marshall intended to honor a particular Native-American – regardless of Dietz’s actual identity – reveals the good intentions behind the naming. But this, however, only brings up the question of who has the authority to name others in the first place. We know full well, from the history of both colonialism and US chattel slavery, that naming – particularly on bases of profound power disparities – functions to destroy one identity in order to replace it with another, an erasure and reconstruction that enable white supremacist rule to count, measure, divide, and control those it has conquered and reduced to raw materials or inassimilable obstacles to further consolidation.
Tragically, conservatives’ protestations that sports owners are merely honoring Native-Americans’ military prowess and bravery ignore that these supposed character traits are the sentimental and self-serving projections of successful conquest. Native-American tribes were nothing if not enormously heterogeneous, and many tribes were not martial at all. It may seem a great privilege to name your toys – including military equipment and cars and butter and cigarettes etc. etc. – after your vanquished “opponents” but this ignores the narcissistic sadism of labeling whole civilizations “opponents” and interpreting their self-defense as an intrinsic component of a “majestic spirit” that now warrants tribute. The football moniker’s would-be symbolic ferocity only reflects the eye of the beholder, the self-congratulatory and paranoid imagination of the mass murderers of North American indigenous peoples.
While conservatives have betrayed their assumption of an objective reality in favor of moral relativism, they could still be forgiven for being repulsed by liberals’ sanctimonious and intellectually dishonest intervention in the matter. While Native-American groups have been criticizing the name since the 1940s, Bob Costas decided that last Sunday night’s football game between the Cowboys and Redskins was a ripe opportunity to address the issue, one that has achieved critical mass notwithstanding Snyder’s insistence that he will “NEVER change the name.”
In true opportunistic and disingenuous liberal fashion, Costas hedged his bets, declaring that “Redskins” is qualitatively different from “Chiefs,” “Braves,” “Indians,” “Blackhawks,” “Seminoles” and other sports names based on Native-Americans. For, Costas didactically intoned, “Redskins” is the only name of the bunch that is a slur. So the “tomahawk chop,” pseudo-war chants, or buffoonish faux Indian mascots are unproblematic? It is just as likely that Costas doesn’t believe this but advocates a policy of “one thing at a time” and not making “the perfect the enemy of the good.” No wonder they’re hated.
Any victory for politically correct politeness of course advances a liberal ideal, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the oppressive institutional continuities that such politeness obscures. Why would Native-Americans care about a mere epithet (although many of course do), considering the fourth world poverty, unemployment, environmental ruination, disease, high infant mortality, low life expectancy, and violence regularly confronting a disproportionately high number of Native-Americans? Why would a people who have lost some 98 percent of their land, who didn’t have a conception of something called “private property” in the first place, listen to Bob Costa’s NBC exhortation to be offended and take appropriate action?
Conservatives of course throw out the baby with the liberal bathwater. Enraged by liberal insincerity, conservatives become ever more misanthropic, calloused to the radical idealism that is submerged beneath liberal appropriation.
Defenders of the term aren’t going to listen to Bob Costas either, as they universally deny that the name is a slur, and there is debate regarding whether “Redskin” in fact developed amidst the government bounty programs that awarded huge sums for the scalps of murdered Native-Americans. The name’s defenders sometimes point to the etymology of “Oklahoma,” from the Choctaw words for “Red People.” But beyond the fact that “people” is not “skin,” Oklahoma was of course the desolate and barren destination of the Trail of Tears. Having expelled diverse and “inassimilable” groups of Native-Americans from the fertile southeast so that the land could be exploited for economic gain (with African-American slaves performing the labor of course), it is fitting that the U.S. Government would choose to adopt Choctaw Chief Allen Wright’s name “Red People” for the future land of the dust bowl. Not only was this the only land fit for the Red People, their inexorable Western concentration and destruction were justified through eyes that only projected the most superficial common denominator onto them, one that conceals their subjectivities, diversity, and ultimately existence as people. All that’s left is a “redskin,” no different in real life than on a football decal.
Conservatives, whose individualist cynicism inures them to historical collective injustice, make a profitable living out of exposing liberals’ hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Liberals, benefiting handsomely from empire but uncomfortable with its more tasteless manifestations, follow their consciences in trying to make things better one day at a time, at least for their children’s consciences. Unilaterally distributing mass produced politeness that only eliminates institutional violence’s symbolic expressions, liberals perpetuate oppression but suppress its negative articulation; conservatives accordingly have disdain for liberals’ refusal to own their offensiveness. Both groups will continue to argue about the name “Redskins,” a debate that may die down but that both sides can be expected to give their all to while caring little for the deeper injustice that their rhetoric conceals.
Joshua Sperber lives in New York and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org