Today, Americans will huddle around TV screens, don team colors and exchange competitive banter as we inaugurate a new season of one of the nation’s most beloved pastimes: football. Yet today, we are also reminded of another American legacy, with a far less positive connotation. As Washington’s football team takes the field, the escalating debate over the offense of the team’s name is once again pushed onto the national stage.
Native American advocates have been explicit in their insistence that the name “Redskins” is offensive. By definition, it is a pejorative. Defenders of the name have contested that it is a badge of pride, ignoring the community voices that object. Whether or not the name is intended to offend, it does. The usages of the name and logo transcend cultural appropriation to the ranks of explicit racial disrespect.The debate, however, should not be reduced to a question of whether or not the name “hurts the feelings” of Native Americans. The offense is clear, and valid. This debate is about much more. It is about the exacerbation of oppression; the flippant acceptance of the convention of valuing capitalist profit and white preference over social respect for subjugated communities. This debate is about adding insult to injury.
Across racial groups, Native Americans have confronted among the most tragic of injuries persecuted in American history. Let’s remember for a moment that this nation was once exclusively inhabited by Native Americans. When you fast-forward to claims that only a minute fraction of the population may take personal offense to Washington’s team name, you are forced to grapple with the root of this demographic shift: Once 100% of the population, Native Americans now only make up 1.7% of the United States. This is largely because American Indians were systematically displaced and annihilated by European conquest. Their voices have been dwarfed in political, social, and economic arenas because of America’s history of racial violence.
The use of the Washington team name and mascot is just one of the relics of this legacy of violence that has translated into systems of oppression today. America’s Native population is faced with some of the starkest levels of structural disadvantage across all racial groups in the United States. Dropout rates for Native American students are nearly triple the rates of their white peers, and the percentage of young adults from ages 25-34 who hold a bachelor’s degree is less than half the national average, at 12% compared to 31% nationally. As of 2012, the median household income of single-race American Indian and Alaska Native households was $35,310, over 30% less than the national median of $51,371. Unemployment for Native Americans has remained above 10% for over half a decade, substantially higher than the national average.These factors lead to drastic rates of poverty and hunger within the Native American community. While the national poverty rate was 15.9% in 2012, 29.1% of single-race American Indians and Alaska Natives lived below the poverty line. From 2001-2008, food insecurity in the Native American community fluctuated between 23 and 42%, consistently above the national average. Rates of physical and mental health issues in the Native population further exceed the majority demographic, and research even reveals a direct relationship between the use of derogatory team names and lower self-esteem and mental health for Native American adolescents and young adults.
Rooted in this complex matrix of historical persecutions and contemporary inequalities, Native American advocates have expressed justified offense against Washington’s team name, and have even taken legal action. Media outlets and commentators are gradually eliminating the name from their vernacular, acknowledging the obvious offense and tangible detriment the term wields. This football season – against the indignant inertia of the Washington team owner’s insistence on retaining a racial slur as the team’s moniker – we should all join the movement for human decency and respect by eliminating this epithet from our vocabularies.
Penda Hair is the co-director of Advancement Project.