IN the small Oregon town where I live, there's a mountain road called "Dead Indian." Every few years, someone - usually a newcomer - complains in the local newspaper or perhaps sneaks out at night to spray paint over the "Dead" on the highway sign. But then somebody else explains that it goes back to pioneer days when one Indian killed another in some long-forgotten dispute, that it's not really as bad as it sounds, and it's an important historical name. The highway department paints back in the "Dead," and the issue goes away for awhile.
Most racism and ethnic bias is like that, not expressed or even felt with any (or at least much) conscious sense of superiority or malice. Like the profoundly moving characters in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" who display so much compassion yet also casually refer to the lonely black ranch hand called Crooks as "the nigger." Or the use of the word "Jew" as a verb. Or the political atmosphere that lets a United States senator think he can get away with publicly taunting Japan about the US ability to build
atomic bombs. Or the easy acceptance of sports names and fan activity offensive to native Americans.
The Portland Oregonian, one of the most progressive newspapers in the country (both in hiring and reportage), has just taken an important small step in saying "no" to the "innocent" forms of racism. It will no longer use sports teams' names and nicknames like "Redskins," "Redmen," "Indians," and "Braves."
"I have directed this action with the belief that these names tend to perpetuate stereotypes that damage the dignity and self-respect of many people in our society and that this harm far transcends any innocent entertainment or promotional value these names may have," said editor William Hilliard in making the announcement.
The Oregonian has gotten a lot of flak from subscribers and sports fans and others in the press. But as managing editor Peter Thompson explains it, simply falling behind the cover of the First Amendment (which has no relevance here) or editorializing against racist nicknames without changing newspaper policy is not enough.
"We have concluded that we will not be a passive participant...," he wrote in a column. "Standing on the sidelines isn't going to bring about change."
Passive racism is largely ignorance. Ignorance, for example, of native American religious tradition that too often is mocked on the playing field at halftime or mimicked at all-white summer camps or misunderstood in the courts.
In making its decision on sports names, says managing editor Thompson, the Portland Oregonian paid close attention to the words of Tim Giago, who publishes the weekly newspaper of the Lakota Tribe in South Dakota:
"The sham rituals, such as the wearing of feathers, smoking of so-called peace pipes, beating of tomtoms, fake dances, horrendous attempts at singing Indian songs, the so-called war whoops, and the painted faces, address more than the issues of racism. They are direct attacks upon the spirituality of the Indian people."
"Very few people are aware of the history and complexity of native American religions," Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii said recently in opening congressional hearings on amending the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Indian groups and religious organizations say such amendments are necessary in the wake of US Supreme Court decisions restricting native American religious practices.
"This is a matter of education," said Senator Inouye, who knows something about ethnic bias and the value of protecting individual freedoms. He lost an arm fighting with one of the most highly decorated US units in Europe in World War II while more than 100,000 other Japanese-Americans (two-thirds of them US citizens) were herded into livestock pens and then internment camps, their property having been confiscated under presidential Executive Order 9066.
This is the 50th anniversary of that internment and the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the decimation of native American culture. What better time to root out the remnants of racism and ethnic bias, which have no legitimate part in American culture and society.