Friday, October 18, 2013

On the increasingly controversial Washington "Redskins"

Seems like everyone these days has an opinion -- mostly hostile opinions -- about the name used by the Washington NFL franchise.  This recent editorial cartoon by Tom Stiglich illustrates a widely shared view:

Editorial cartoon by Tom Stiglich obtained from

The issue here is not whether some find the "Redskins" nickname offensive -- it is established beyond question that some do take offense.

Nor would I presume to argue that those complaining about the nickname should simply 'get over it.' There's no question that the term 'redskin' can be an intentionally offensive insult or slur.

But I will assert that, as used by the Washington NFL franchise, the term "Redskins" is absolutely not used as a racial slur. As I wrote last year, the name Redskins, like the names Indians, Chiefs, and Braves, were adopted by sports teams in honor of other teams or qualities they admired, or that they wished to emulate -- "and early in the 20th Century, most athletes (of any ancestry) wanted to emulate the skill and success of Jim Thorpe and the Carlise Indians."

In the early days of the 20th Century, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School played a major college schedule (and college football was then firmly at the apex of the football pyramid). Coached by Glenn "Pop" Warner (yes, there was a real Pop Warner), the Carlisle Indians dominated the college football world.

Now, you don't have to have a lot of skill at argument to prevail on a claim that the very premise of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was racist, at least by any standard we understand today. The original purpose of the school was to take Indian boys off their reservations, strip away all vestiges of their heritage, and thereby 'civilize' them. Boarding schools like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School were determined to assimilate their charges into American society. Carlisle's founder, Richard H. Pratt, described the philosophy of the boarding school program as, "Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

And Pratt was sympathetic to the Indians. He thought he was helping.

But teams didn't take up the banner of Indians, Braves or Chiefs or, yes, Redskins because they were in favor of the destruction of Native American culture. Nor did they take up the names to mock indigenous peoples. They took up the names because they wanted to be as successful as -- as good as -- the Carlisle Indians generally and Jim Thorpe in particular. (Thorpe excelled at baseball, too; it was the discovery that he'd picked up some money playing minor league baseball in the summers between school terms that led to his being stripped of the medals he earned at the 1912 Olympics.)

Stiglich's use of the Confederate battle flag in his cartoon is thought-provoking. There is a wing-nut school of historical revisionists that claim that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. From this, the wing-nut revisionists argue that the Confederate battle flag and similar symbols are not emblems of racial oppression, but of states' rights.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. The Civil War was absolutely about slavery -- even though it is true that most Confederate soldiers were not slaveowners. Some Union soldiers were slaveholders. We like to think of big plantation owners as the only supporters of chattel slavery. That would be so much more convenient than the actual truth: Poor whites in the North and South alike feared economic competition from freed African-Americans and many -- most? -- were implacably opposed to abolition. Their descendants became casual, and sometimes virulent or violent, racists. As Reconstruction ended, as Jim Crow laws were being put in place, the view grew up that many Confederate soldiers had been chivalrous Cavaliers, possessed of honorable qualities well worth emulating. Many sports teams in the South adopted nicknames like "Rebels" as a result. The Confederate battle flag was a common sideline symbol at sports events for decades. This wasn't necessarily a deliberate slap at African-American sensibilities; it is probably more correct to say that, in the racist culture of the time, the effect of the use of these symbols on African-American sensibilities was never given a moment's thought.

But the meaning of symbols can evolve. By the 1960s the symbols of the old Confederacy became increasingly and indelibly identified with the worst, most-violent, die-hard racists. And while historians can still point to the careers of gallant, chivalrous Cavaliers who mistakenly fought for The Lost Cause, we have matured as a society to the point where the hurtful, hateful aspects of the Confederate battle flag overwhelm any virtues that this symbol might once have represented for sportsmen.

How does this apply to the current Redskins controversy? I'd agree that the feelings of indigenous peoples were not taken into account by those adopting the Redskins name. But the Redskins name and logo is, at bottom, an homage to Native Americans, not a deliberate slur. There is no feat of sophistry that can be conjured to transmute the Confederate battle flag into an homage to African-Americans.

Thus, the analogy suggested by Mr. Stiglich's cartoon does not hold.

The Redskins name is not deliberately insulting or an intentional racial slur. The PC Police are wrong to say otherwise. Still, while the "Redskins" name is just another homage traceable ultimately to Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians, it is the least sensitive of all. Granted, in 70 years, the Redskins name has become a "brand name" and there are many positive things associated with that brand. Nevertheless, if I were advising the team, I wouldn't counsel Daniel Snyder to dig in his heels and refuse to consider changing the name of his franchise. But let's do so for the right reasons, OK?

1 comment:

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

well i guess i have two things to say on this post. first about the war of northern aggression. i do think it's about states rights but then i am a nut i guess. you are the historian curmy but we disagree on this one.

and the second thing is i think they want to use the word redskins and drop the washington part because that part is an embarrassment.

have a great day my friend!

smiles, bee