Saturday, March 22, 2014

Time to update the "Washington Redskins"

Or, Why I'm Not Electable, Part Three and a Half

There’s a growing groundswell of public opinion over the past few years calling on the Washington Redskins football team to change its name and logo. The word “redskin” is obviously racist and hard to defend in the 21st century. The owners of the team have no good arguments to defend themselves, insofar as they even bother to talk about it. I agree with the critics, but only up to a point, and here I offer a compromise that the critics have to accept if they don’t want to be hypocrites.

Here’s where I agree with the critics:

Racism has been a major influence on the history of the U.S. Some of the influences are obvious and others are more subtle. Racism works in ways that many people don’t notice, and there are forms of racism that go unnoticed because many people simply prefer not to acknowledge it. “Racist” is a label that is easier to put on someone else than oneself, because sometimes it’s hard to see racism in yourself. One kind of racist behavior tends to promote other racist behaviors, and people use one form of racism to justify other forms of racism. I think we can all agree that sometimes people don't see their own racism even if it's obvious to other people. With me so far?

Now, here’s where I’m critical of the critics:

I don’t know if this makes a real difference or not, or whether it changes anything at all, but most Native American tribes today are also overtly racist organizations. Whether anyone wants to recognize it or not, most tribes are by their nature racist institutions. They were created by one form of racism and now maintained by another form. “Indian tribes” were and are to some degree products of white racism. They have suffered hardship, even genocide, at the hands of white-supremacist racism. Nowadays, native tribes have added to that racism their own form of Indian racism.

Pick at random any federally recognized Indian tribe and take a look at its constitution, especially its membership policies. Most of them still use a “blood quantum” measurement for membership. For example, you must be “1/8th Cherokee” to be a member of the Cherokee tribe. That’s by definition a racist rule. That’s just as racist as what the Daughters of the American Revolution used to do, which was to require its members to be white. That’s no less racist than the Nazi’s hiring you or killing you depending how little or how much Jewish ancestry you had.

Now, imagine if a professional sports team was organized that way. Imagine if an NFL team required that all its players had to be “at least 1/16th white.” That would and should be considered racist. (And American sports leagues used to be like that, banning people from playing based on arbitrary racial definitions.) If a team did that, the owners ought to be branded as Nazis, racists, bigots, all the words you can think of. I'd be right there branding them that, too.

(Ignore for the moment the fact that people are not fractions of races. No one has this percent of X blood and that percent of Y blood. There’s no such thing as blood quantum. It’s a racist illusion, or at best a racist metaphor.)

Meanwhile, what the “blood quantum” standard has created is a very diverse group of people who are card-carrying tribal members. Native Americans are a much more diverse population than most people realize. That doesn't mean tribes aren't racist, just that the racism may not be obvious. Anyone, no matter what that person looks like, could be a member of a native tribe. There are some tribal members out there with blonde hair and blue eyes. You CANNOT assume that someone wearing a Redskins jacket is not a Native American, no matter what the person looks like.
You can't look at a photo of the owner of the Redskins and just tell by looking at him that he's not a member of an Indian tribe. You can guess, but it's just a guess, and it's a racist guess. (That guess is correct, by the way, but it's still a racist guess.)
Don’t be one of those racist progressives who expect all Indians to have long, straight black hair or expect all Indians to talk like the ones on "Northern Exposure." You cannot say that Native Americans can use native icons but white people can’t, when there are people who are both white and native.

The Perfect Compromise
The legal solution is totally obvious:
The Washington Redskins organization should incorporate itself as an actual Indian tribe.
The team should file the paperwork to get U.S. government recognition. That way, it can be as racist as it wants to be, it has the sovereignty to use its symbols however it wants, and no one is allowed to question its racism as long as the team claims that it’s a fundamental part of its indigenous heritage.
Then, it can come up with the same kind of membership policies as any other tribe. To appease native critics, it can come up with its own blood quantum requirement. Let’s say to play on the team you have to be at least 1/64th native American. If documentation is not available, then a player just needs to sign an affidavit swearing he’s got some native ancestry somewhere.

When a player is cut from the team, retires, or his contract runs out, then that’s just “disenrollment,” which a lot of tribes do today as well. Most tribal constitutions allow tribes to cancel membership. They can actually declare someone “no longer an Indian.” Talk about racist power structure -- they can unilaterally change a person's racial status.

That would also open up new revenue streams for the team. Tax-exempt businesses in the stadium, a casino area in the training facility, the right to hunt whales and sell the meat to Japan, etc. All kinds of business opportunities.

Then, any Native American critics would become total hypocrites instead of just partial hypocrites. They may not want to draw too much attention to the details of tribal politics.

Applying for tribal recognition would also help show the public that the team owners are not racist against indigenous people. It's hard to brand them as anti-Indian if they officially embrace that identity. Hard to say they hate people if they want to join those people.

Of course “Redskin” is still a hateful, racist name. But, many common names for Native American groups began as racial slurs anyway. “Sioux” and “Iroquois” are hateful names given to those groups by their rivals. These names can and have been rehabilitated to some degree and could even be sources of pride. And, there are plenty of accepted tribal nicknames based on some sort of physical appearance. Maybe it’s no different than referring to a native group as the Blackfeet or the Flathead or the Nez Perce (Pierced Nose). "Red skin" could be a reference not to skin tone but to decorative paint. In any event, it's sacrilegious and even racist to tell a tribe what they can and cannot call themselves.

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