By Harvey Wasserman
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On January 26, 1992, fans of the Washington Redskins descended upon Minneapolis to watch their team play in Super Bowl XXVI. But before blithely filing into the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome to watch the game, they had to brush past a crowd of 2,000 activists with the American Indian Movement, protesting the institutional racism of using "redskin" as a football team mascot.
It's a scene I like to think about: Throngs of fans, largely white and unaccustomed to encountering large numbers of American Indians (The D.C. area's native population is a sliver of a percent), dressed up in warpaint and feathers and wielding fake tomahawks, team chant dying on their lips as they realize they're on the receiving end of stares from a crowd of none-too-pleased Oneida, Ojibwe and other tribes.
It must have been awkward.
Twenty years later, and not much has changed -- the team name that was an embarrassment even in the early '90s has stuck around well into the 2010s. The only difference is that fans are probably not quite as blithely ignorant of the problem, due in part to the recently renewed call for change.
A bill has been introduced to Congress legislating a name switch, although it will likely fail. Ten members of Congress just wrote a letter to Dan Snyder, the team's owner, declaring that the name "diminishes feelings of community and worth among the Native American tribes." And a coalition of Native Americans has once again sued the team's trademark -- an endeavor that has failed in the past, but might succeed this time around.
These people get that the name of the Washington Redskins needs to go. If it's at all unclear to you, I'd recommend reading Dave Zirin's trenchant open letter to Snyder that he wrote for Grantland last week.
Here's what Snyder said in response to the recent groundswell of opposition, in an interview with the USA Today: "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER -- you can use caps."
Snyder and the other stalwarts digging their heels in the sand have always used two major defenses to justify their obstinate position -- that the name is a tribute to Native American tribes, and that "redskin" is a term of respect (both risible claims). But lately, they've had something new in their toolkit: according to a poll taken by the Associated Press, only 11 percent of Americans think the name should be changed.
The team highlighted the poll on its website. "While much of the world has changed over the last three decades, the loyal support for the Washington Redskins remains unwavering," states Redskins.com. "It is also suspected that at least 50 percent of those in dissent are Dallas Cowboys fans."
It's odd that the team highlights the AP example. The question they want to ask isn't: What does the general population think about the name of the Washington Redskins? The question they should be asking is: What about the ones who are targeted by the slur -- the American Indians themselves?
There is poll data for that, too. The most often-cited numbers are from a 2002 Sports Illustrated poll that found 75 percent of the American Indians who participated were not offended by the name. The same poll found that 63 percent of American Indians on reservations weren't offended, either. Another poll found similar results, but with numbers closer to 90 percent.
The Washington Times made its interpretation of the poll numbers quite clear with this beaut of a headline: "Indians Give a Cheer for the Name Redskins."
Here's what the Times, Snyder, and everyone else who gleefully uses the poll data fails to consider.
First of all, people who are not actually Native Americans often claim to be -- it's a well-documented phenomenon in academia. It's all too likely that this chicanery happened to some extent with the Redskins poll data -- especially considering that it's an issue important to many non-Natives.
Second, polls strike me as a clumsy tool for gauging something as complex as institutional racism. For example, as Zirin argues on his delightful radio show, The Edge of Sports, institutional racism itself probably skews the data. It would only make sense that American Indians don't care about the name of a football team, when they have to prioritize their own survival while struggling with poverty.
Third: Even if we dismiss the fundamental flaws of polling on this issue, racism is not decided by majority rule. If it's true that 30-40 percent of American Indians are offended by the term Redskins, that doesn't mean that the Washington Redskins' name suddenly becomes anodyne through democratic process. What it does mean is that one out of every three American Indians feels the unimaginable hurt of a racist slur because people like the name of their football team. To me, that's significant and unjustifiable. Even if that number were one in ten, it would still mean that a huge population of people feel assaulted on the basis of their identity.
And in the ongoing conversation surrounding the Washington Redskins name, it's ironically a population that will likely continue to be ignored.
Erik Lorenzsonn is an editorial intern at The Progressive.