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.


  1. No1KState

    Hey guys! I wasn’t going to say anything, but I hope it’s okay if I point out that the link for my blog does not go to my blog. My blog’s web address is –

    The first thing I wonder about is the statute of limitations. Are there statutes of limitations in cases where whites/men criminalize other whites/men, or to put it better, where the gender/race of the victim is not part of the crime itself? Is there a statute of limitations on embezzlement, for example? There’re time limits on rape, spousal abuse, pay discrimiination, etc and so on. It could be that since I didn’t go to law school, I’m not aware of all the laws. But, I don’t know, it seems like cases where the victim is a woman or person of color and the crime itself involves their gender or race, there’re time limits.

    That aside, this is quite disappointing. It would be easier to swallow if it were the case that the SC was just following procedure or whatever, where the issue has to do with legal technicalities and not the particular facts of the case. You know? Cause often, the SC deals with technicalities not the case per se, right? And it would be overreaching or “activist” of the court to make a decision about the merits of the arguments and not statutes of limitations. But since the New Haven case was somewhat unprecedented in that the SC made a decision about the case rather than sending it down to the lower court, they could’ve done that now.

  2. Joe

    No1KState, the SCOTUS has a habit of putting Indians back in “colonial time,” and admitting they were oppressed then and that US treaties were legal back then, but then shifting to “modern time” in which the SCOTUs cannot possibly go against whites who have established themselves in a place or a company and rule in favor of Indians. Basically, the courts just say “might makes right (law)”

    • No1KState

      I’m calling BS on the SC. Not Joe.

      What’s the reasoning behind this time warp? They don’t wanna upturn the lives of white people? Isn’t that the same reasoning behind resistance to reperations? Does it not occur to any of them that the lives of the Amerindians and other racial minorities are “upturned” because of racism? That perhaps deciding in the favor of Amerindians would be turning things up-side-right?

  3. John D. Foster

    Joe, thanks for the post on this important topic. I enjoy bringing this up in my race/ethnic course, and the origins of the term “redskin.” It referred to the scalps of Native Americans returned from the “frontier” by “settlers” for a cash reward, since it would be too cumbersome to haul back entire bodies. It is a naked symbol of our genocide of a multitude of nations. And yet people (not just whites, by the way) commonly say it’s no big deal and worse argue that we’re celebrating Indian culture when displaying these images. Or worse, the argument I’ve heard from some students over the years that if we changed these nicknames, logos, and mascots, we’d have to buy new gear for our beloved sports teams!!!

  4. potatobug


    I don’t disagree with you on this issue in general but in this case the post isn’t accurate.

    The Court grants about 1% of requests for a writ of certiorari out of the thousands it receives, and it takes 4 justices to grant the writ. When the court denies the petition, it is *not* saying it approves of the lower court’s decision. Even if it did in this case, it would be saying only that it agreed with the D.C. Circuit’s determination on the issue of statute of limitations. It would say nothing about whether the “racist epithet is OK,” as that’s beyond the scope of the petition.

    Further, the denial has no precedential value. If the same matter came up in a circuit other than D.C., the circuit court is not bound in any way by the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case, whereas it would be if the Court had heard it and made a ruling. And a party to that case could petition for writ of certiorari afterward. (Also note that the end of the Washington Post’s article refers to a 3rd Circuit decision saying that this kind of trademark can be challenged at any time. That will still be the law in the 3rd Circuit until the Supreme Court says otherwise.)

    I do understand that these procedural determinations often serve as cover for a court’s opinion on the underlying issue—the conservative justices’ ruling in the Ledbetter pay discrimination case is one popular example—and that may be what’s happening in this case. But the way you’ve reported this is misleading.

    • Joe

      Potato bug, thanks for the detailed and insightful comment. You may be right. Yet, I understand most of these legal niceties, but it also seems clear to me that the Supreme Court has the power to take on such an important case and to rule that such extreme racist action (including intensive commercialization of racist images) violates certain US or international laws dealing with civil/human rights. The literature showing great harm to indigenous people, esp. young people, is quite clear. To hide behind legal niceties is not only cowardly, but from an international human rights point of view, illegal and immoral. This white-run country has participated in many forms of genocide against indigenous Americans, and in my view it is time to quit making a distinction between “colonial time” (where a recent Oneida decision admits the US did bad stuff to Indians ) and “contemporary time” (where the federal courts like to use time limits to say we cannot do something to redress the impact of past oppression).

  5. Shari Valentine

    This is the latest in the 500 year war. One of the things that makes it tricky is that the R-word team may get the opportunity to draft a Cherokee player to play for them. Some of the info is included in the 1965 story link Joe embedded.

    So, this kid will be faced with the decision to take on the entire NFL and systemic racist court system by refusing to play for a team named for the most severe epithet of his race, or play for a team named for it.

    It is a familiar though not publicized dilemma. Many American Indians living off of reservations are faced with these difficult choices about their education and participation. My daughter, whose high school mascot is the cougars, nevertheless faces the decision every year with the cheers and posters for the game against a rival team, the Indians.

    Posters like scalp the Indians, massacre the Indians, etc. are regularly on display. We then get to watch the halftime performances where the cheerleaders and drill team wear regalia reserved for elders and leaders who have earned it.

    This case is not in the end about statutes of limitations. It is about power and wealth. The team has the power and wealth of its own, tradition, history and unfortunately, the fans.

    Only coalition politics and alliances will bring down the R-team. If other players and fans who are victims of systemic racism join Native Americans in boycotting these teams, money will become a weapon that works in our favor. As long as fans pay money and players accept the money, the Court will hide behind technicalities and the racism will continue to prevail


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