It almost causes me physical pain to say this, but the high school football team in Paw Paw, Mich., should be allowed to keep its racist mascot.
They shouldn’t keep it, of course. The name “Redskins” is demeaning, offensive, and tied to horrible brutality that is America’s past shame. It’s the kind of reductionist stereotype that casts an entire group of people as not fully human.
But nor should the state Board of Education use funding to bludgeon a local school district to change its speech.
Without question, the district’s school board should revisit a 4-3 February vote to allow the team to keep its name. The board’s vote is binding, unless the district’s federal funding is in jeopardy.
The state board responded to this line in the sand, threatening to withhold state funds from the district until the name is changed. It’s unclear whether that move would prompt the local board to revisit its vote, and Paw Paw Superintendent Sonia Lark didn’t return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
State Superintendent Brian Whiston has asked Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office for guidance on whether he has the authority to hold back state funds until the name is changed, and last week, the state board directed the department to develop budget language to present to the state Legislature that would grant the superintendent that authority regardless.
All parties involved are upping the ante in a dangerous way, coming really close to bad policy and worse precedent: Flip the issue around, and imagine that the state ed board was prepared to punish a district that had adopted a pro-LGBT slogan, or made a statement of secular welcome to students of every (or no) faith.
There’s a lot going on here. It’s not simply a question of free speech. The lawyers I consulted said there’s no clear verdict on whether a government entity has that right (University of Michigan law professor Leonard Niehoff suggested that government entities are subject to, not protected by, the First Amendment) though there’s something to be said for the principles of free speech, even if it’s uncertain whether the amendment applies. And it’s also not the oft-maligned “political correctness” — I call it “not being rude” — that a lot of folks these days disdain.
I also don’t think Paw Paw is full of hateful jerks. I don’t know a lot about the place (there’s a Brian Eno song that references a supposedly pyrokinetic 19th-Century Paw Paw man, and thanks to researching this column, I now also know that it is named after a fruit) but I’m sure that most folks in the small Van Buren County community who support the name consider it heritage, not racism.
That argument doesn’t hold historical water. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has defined “redskin” as “often contemptuous” since 1898, which is a pretty long time; the school district was incorporated in 1870.
Joseph Gone, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts, says he can’t provide a complete history of the word’s usage, but notes that American Indians widely believe it hails from the colonial-era practice of scalping Indians or bringing back body parts to earn bounties for killing them.
“There’s no question ‘redskins’ has a longstanding context of usage that renders it completely inappropriate with a school-affiliated team, but the name is only one piece of it,” he says.
There’s a bigger problem, Gone says, in the idea of using humans as mascots.
“For a mascot in sports, you want to pick symbolic representations that imply aggression, the ability to overcome and vanquish your enemy. Some are animals, some are imaginary creatures, but American Indians are the only racial group today that continues to be invoked in terms of sports team mascots,” he said — Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish are represented by a leprechaun, and genuine Vikings are in short supply these days.
“These mascots of Indians usually dress like Indians are thought to have dressed 100 years ago, kind of a savage, a noble savage, a primitive, able to overcome rivals — which you could say is quite ironic in the course of U.S. history — with spears and bows and arrows rallying sports fans to beat the rival team,” he said.
And that’s a problem, Gone says, because aggression and hostility are traits that first settlers and then the American government used to justify brutalizing American Indians.
“Not human beings worthy of full treatment or engagement,” he said. “It legitimated that these aren’t full human beings we need to worry about treating fairly. So all of that is tangled up now in sports team mascots.”
And while that’s probably not what sports fans are thinking about, Gone says — they’re more likely to consider those traits admirable, in association with sports — such depictions lock American Indians in a primitive past.
“It crowds out, in the popular mind, a nuanced understanding of the challenges Indians face today. There are more Indians alive today than there were a hundred years ago, but the popular representation is something back prior to the reservation” Gone said. “If we are making complex bids for self-determination, or tribal sovereignty, it doesn’t help us when the popular conception is that we wear feathers and grunt.”
The state board’s opposition to such mascots is longstanding — a previous board passed a 2003 resolution that strongly requested districts with such mascots to change them, and reaffirmed that resolution in 2010. Other districts have swapped out problematic mascots with far less fuss.
This is the first time the board has attempted to force a district’s hand.
What it seems to boil down to is the difference between can and should: Paw Paw can keep its racist mascot, but it shouldn’t; the school board could, or thinks it can, yank the district’s funds. But it shouldn’t.
Maybe the folks in Paw Paw who are so insistent that the word “redskin” represents them should listen to someone like Professor Gone. Or actually listen to the American Indian protesters who’ve dragged this concern to the community’s attention, without the defensive crouch that’s apparent in every account of the vote, its run-up and aftermath — stop seeing them as obstacles, and start seeing them as people.
That’s really all they’re asking.