Supreme Court Will Not Review Racist Epithet Case

NYC Supreme Court Building

One of our most undemocratic political institutions, the Supreme Court, just decided not to review an appellate court case allowing extreme racist terminology and epithets to be widely used by US sports teams. According to a Washington Post story, this unwise Court decided to operate out of the white racist frame without reflection. In the 1990s a coalition of petitioners sued to force the Washington “Redskins” football team to change its racist name. In 1999 a federal agency voided the trademark rights of the team because its logo was ruled to be racially derogatory and thus violated the law. However, in 2005 a U.S. appellate court reversed the agency’s decision, again allowing the racist trademark to be widely used (Creative Commons License photo credit: PilotGirl).

But Native Americans continued with court appeals. According to a wikipedia summary:

On May 15, 2009 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed an earlier ruling that the Native Americans had waited too long to challenge the trademark. The trademark was registered in 1967. Native Americans successfully got the court to reconsider based on the fact the one of the plaintiffs, Mateo Romero, was only one in 1967 and turned 18 in 1984. The court decision affirmed that even accepting the 1984 date, that the Native Americans had still waited too long for the 1992 challenge. In November, 2009, in Harjo v. Pro-Football, Inc., Case No. 09-326, the U.S. Supreme Court declined certiorari and refused hear the Native American group’s appeal.

According to one research analysis, the use of this highly racist epithet, “redskins,” and images of Indian mascots for logos and sports teams, literally 100s of times, emerged in the era when whites had killed off or imprisoned most Native Americans on reservations, but then started engaging in “playing Indian,” which became widespread to the present day:

Still today, children don “Indian” costumes at Halloween, “act like Indians” during “Cowboy and Indian” games, “become Indian Princesses” at the YMCA, and perform “Indian rituals” at summer camps. Adults belong to organizations that involve learning “Indian ways” and performing “Indian rituals”. . . . Non-Native Americans have created an imaginary version of Indianess that they sometimes enact, and they expect real Native Americans to either ignore, affirm, or validate such myths and practices. . . . Although non-Native Americans learn about a mythical “Native American culture,” or occasionally about real Native American cultural practices, they often ignore most of the realities of contemporary Native American lives.

Naming sports teams is part of this playing Indian. There is some debate over the earliest etymology of “redskins.” Yet, by the 1870s at the latest the word had developed into the extremely vicious meaning it has had ever since, much like the words “nigger,” “kike,” or “dago.” Try to imagine a major sports team using those terms for their teams, especially in the capital city of the “world’s most important democracy.” Another Post story recounts that:

An 1871 novel spoke of “redskinned devils.” The Rocky Mountain News in 1890 described a war on the whites by “every greasy redskin.” The Denver Daily News the same year reported a rebellion by “the most treacherous red skins.” [Yet] Daniel Snyder, who owns the Washington NFL franchise, has said the team name will never be changed because “what it means is tradition, what it means is competitiveness, what it means is honor.” He said, “It is not meant to be derogatory.”

Interestingly, in 1965 the team’s owner quit allowing Dixie to be played so as not to alienate black fans. But Native Americans have not been so fortunate with the owner. Fortunately, over the last two decades several colleges and universities have given up Indian logos, and numerous local governments, especially school boards, have also had to face the issue. Many public and private schools have changed team names and dropped offensive mascots. The Minnesota Board of Education and the Los Angeles and Dallas school districts have forced some local schools to give up stereotyped Indian mascots.

Many whites claim Indians support these racist mascots. One major survey found that only nine percent of Native American respondents found it offensive for the Washington team to be called “Redskins.” However, another survey of Indian leaders came out in a very different way:

“In a survey by Indian Country Today, 81 percent of respondents indicated use of American Indian names, symbols and mascots are predominantly offensive and deeply disparaging to Native Americans. Indian mascots, by today’s standards, would be offensive to any other race if portrayed in a similar manner,” wrote Fred Blue Fox, Sicangu Lakota. “Indian peoples are no different in regarding the depiction of eagle feathers, face paints and war objects such as tomahawks. These are all sacred to the people and therefore have no place in any sort of public display, let alone mascots.” Only 10 percent of respondents indicated use of American Indian mascots is a respectful gesture and predominantly honors Natives. Nine percent of respondents did not know if American Indian mascots either honored or offended Natives.

A long list of Native American organizations also endorsed getting rid of all Native American mascots. So, whom should whites listen to when making decisions about celebrating racist epithets? Their own racist framing or Native American leaders?

Whites who defend the racist or caricatured mascots also ignore its impact and research supporting it. The distorted and racist caricatures and other images of Native Americans have been shown to have a serious impact on both Native Americans and on whites, as this summary of research shows:

Studies 2 and 3 – American Indian high school and college students were primed with a prevalent social representation of their group (i.e., Pocahontas, Chief Wahoo, or Negative Stereotypes) and then completed self-esteem or collective self-efficacy measures. In both studies, American Indian students primed with these social representations showed depressed self-esteem and collective self-efficacy when compared to American Indian students in the control (no social representation) condition….. Study 5 – European American students were explicitly primed with social representations of American Indians (i.e., Pocahontas, Chief Wahoo or Negative Stereotypes). They reported heightened self-esteem when compared to European Americans in the no-prime control condition. This boost in self-esteem for European Americans suggests that the dominant social representations of minority groups have significant implications for the psychological functioning of both minority and majority group members.

In 2001 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued this normative statement:

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights calls for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. . . . the Commission believes that the use of Native American images and nicknames in school is insensitive and should be avoided. In addition, some Native American and civil rights advocates maintain that these mascots may violate anti-discrimination laws. These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping. They are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.