"Racism, Inc." Comes to Football

In the October issue of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball has a splendid piece on “Racism, Inc.," by which he means the extortionate industry--with particularly prosperous franchises on college campuses--that uses its workshops and craftsmanship to twist the raw materials of a serious problem with a long history into an exquisite tool for chiseling power and profit from the credulous.  Give credit to the stick-to-it-iveness of this enterprise, which can operate successfully regardless of truth. If one year the assembly line turns out an Edsel, never fear for its ending on the scrap-heap.  In these subsidized manufactories, first-time losers never get junked, only shelved to await a more propitious moment for recycled sale.  Thus, four years after the United States Supreme Court turned down an appeal in the case Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo, activists have mounted with renewed vigor, in both federal court and in the court of public opinion, another campaign against Washington’s National Football League franchise to prohibit use of its trademarked name “Redskins.”  Well, you don’t need to be a football fan to know that team owner Dan Snyder has deep pockets.  But to the dismay of the opposition, he also has a backbone.

Although Pro Football, Inc.’s initial victory over the activists in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia rested largely on the legal doctrine of laches, which involves the timing of a claimant in pursuing redress in a case of equity, the Court also noted in its decision that “substantial evidence” was lacking to demonstrate that the word “redskins” possessed the pejorative connotations that the activists in fact had claimed. Suzan Shown Harjo, “a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee,” and one of the seven defendants in the case, vehemently disagrees and has led the charge in bringing her side of the story to college campuses and other venues.  Unlike Ward Churchill, Ms. Harjo has a legitimate genealogy, and to her credit, she had tried to inform the academy that Churchill was a phony long before the academy caught on, assuming it ever has.

“Most Native Americans despise the term Redskins, Ms. Harjo maintains, “and say that it is the worst epithet hurled at Native Peoples in the English language.” “Redskins,” she insists, referred to “the days of Indian bounty hunting in the 1600s and 1700s,” when the practice prevailed “of paying bounties for the bloody red skins and scalps as evidence of Indian kill.” Supporters in the academy have echoed this assertion, although when the footnotes are examined the professors have performed little if any serious research on their own and, as was the case with one professor of political science and philosophy, merely assert that “this fact has been recognized by certain governing bodies [sic!].”

But other facts run counter to the activists’ narrative. Polling data, at this point in time, fail to support Ms. Harjo’s first point; a higher proportion, of whites than “Native-Americans,” in neither case a majority, find the word “redskins” offensive. Moreover, not a shred of documented historical evidence has surfaced to support Harjo’s more incendiary second point. As Ives Goddard, a prominent linguistic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, has pointed out, “Harjo has made a living of making assertions on a variety of controversial terms without providing any evidence for them.”  In truth, the use of “red” in describing descendants of Pre-Columbian peoples has a historical trajectory that in no way matches that of “black” in describing Africans and persons of African-descent.  Every word has its own discrete history. Undue present-mindedness, it appears, has led Ms. Harjo and her supporters to read into “redskin” an ugly equivalence, unsustained by historical scholarship, to that elicited by, say, the words “kike” and “spic.” 

For more than a century after colonizing the North American mainland colonies, English settlers, when describing their interactions with indigenous peoples, applied the terms “white” or “tawny” to them.  No one, to the best of any professional historian’s knowledge, has found the use of redskin to describe an “Indian” before the early decades of the eighteenth century. White Americans under the influence of French rationalism became more tri-color coded in broadly speaking of “races” only during the late eighteenth-century. In fact, no less than Thomas Jefferson in the first edition of Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), in a section of the book that challenges the wisdom of the French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon in his characterization of the New World’s flora and fauna, emerges as one of the first prominent persons in the United States to speak of “man, white, red, and black,”   The application by warriors of red paint to their bodies prior to  waging war undoubtedly helped at some point to cement in the minds of whites the association of red with Indian.  Thus, for many whites, though, to be sure, not all, “redskin” came to connote ferocity, bravery, and daring, attributes that one might easily want to associate with a football team.

“Redskin” came into increasing use during the first decades of the nineteenth-century because a wide variety of indigenous ethnicities with whom whites were having increasing contact used it themselves in self-referential contrast to the white-skinned with whom they were doing business. English-speakers took instruction from French-speakers who had a much longer history of contact with indigenous peoples in the trans-Appalachian west.  French Jesuits and others learned indigenous languages and repeatedly recorded the French term “Peaux-Rouges” as an expression not invented by racist whites, but translated by sympathetic interpreters who were taking a tribal identification that had, as an anthropologist might say, emic value. “The first appearances of redskin in English, writes Goddard, are  . . . as literal translations of what would be in standard French Peau-Rouge.”  On the one hand, words like “African” or “Indian” have conventional meanings understood by outsiders who impose them on others; on the other hand, words like “redskin” renders idiom generated by insiders into language understandable to outsiders looking in.

Take, for example, the story, “Proclamation to the Red Skins,” reported in an 1825 issue of the Edwardsville (Illinois) Spectator. A scribe and interpreter took down verbatim the words of Quashquame, chief of the Sauks, who speaks of moving his people to Missouri and building there a city to house the sachem of the “Red Skin nation.”  More than a decade earlier, President James Madison entertained the leaders of multiple western tribes so that he could bribe them into staying away from the English at the beginning of the War of 1812.  Records show that various chiefs in accepting Madison’s pile of gifts called themselves “redskins.”  The publication that may have had the greatest impact in spreading usage among antebellum whites of the word redskin was James Fenimore Cooper’s novel Pioneers (1823), the first of his five Leatherstocking Tales.  Cooper deploys the word a handful of times and never in a pejorative way.  In fact, the first appearance of the word in the book speaks of a partially-clad male “red-skin” as “comely” as “ye ever set eyes on.”

Ms. Harjo’s movement is gaining allies and building momentum. Ray Halbritter, the powerful leader of the Oneidas, has enlisted in the cause.  College students have also picked it up. Prominent clergy have come out in support of an immediate name change. Commentators like Washington Post opinion writer Eugene Robinson have weighed in, declaring, that “redskins” is a “racial slur” that must be jettisoned from the football brand and dare not be uttered in public.  President Obama, as if he had nothing better to do, has reinforced the prevailing wind by saying to an Associated Press interviewer something to the effect that the time has come to “think about changing” the name. (How about to Washington Regulators or Washington Leviathans?)

Will government intrude to mandate the change? Perhaps. Ultimately, however, like so many questions in modern America, the pursuit of truth will not decide the issue. It will be decided by who wins the crowd.  Public opinion, as Tocqueville warned us generations ago, is “the nonrule that rules modern democracy.”  Dan Snyder has countered his critics by insisting that his team name was meant to honor indigenous people.  To win this battle, he will need more than the weight of history on his side.









Posted by: Robert Paquette

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