After decades of sluggish progress and scattered public resistance, the national movement to drop the use of racially sensitive team and mascot names appears poised for its biggest boost yet.
A bill moving quickly through the California Legislature would make the state the first in the nation to ban native-American team mascots from public schools. If passed, about 180 state schools will be saying goodbye to such time-honored nicknames as screaming Redskins, fighting Indians, and howling Braves. Team names that are deemed derogatory to other racial and ethnic groups could be banned as well.
"These names refer to human beings who still exist on the earth today, and [they] have a negative effect for people in our own communities," says state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D), who is sponsoring the bill with the aid of native- American groups. "You don't have to have malicious intent to still have a negative outcome."
Because of the state's size, the large number of schools here using such names, and the momentum generated by the prospective law, activists say that passage would generate the change nationally that has long eluded them. The bill has passed two committees by wide margins, and is receiving little resistance, says sponsor Goldberg.
"We feel this will give enormous momentum nationally to other states who have tried to pass such legislation," says Lori Nelson, director of the Alliance Against Racial Mascots, a southern California-based coalition of native-American and civil rights groups. "California is the most diverse state in America and, in many ways, its most progressive."
Ms. Nelson and others say that a few schools in the US began phasing out Indian mascots as long ago as the 1950s. In the '90s era of political correctness, schools began banning such mascots on their own, and some states New York and Minnesota have asked schools to begin phasing them out.
But no state yet bans such mascot names. Such a step has even failed miserably in some places, partly because of community tradition, partly because of continued insensitivity, and partly because of misplaced notions about honoring native Americans through such mascots, say activists.
"We sometimes hear that people think they are honoring native Americans by picking these names," says Paula Starr, president of the Southern California Indian Center Inc., the largest association of native Americans in the US, with about 200,000 members. "If they really want to do that, then they should name a school after a revered Indian chief."
Such sentiments are common, but not all native Americans have been opposed to tribal names. For example, a recent survey of about 350 native Americans by Sports Illustrated found that 83 percent didn't think professional teams should stop using Indian nicknames or mascots. And the Seminole tribe of Florida, for one, has supported the use of its heritage by Florida State University.
While some people may not object to using certain names, other people question just how to draw the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable. Should, for example, names such as the Vikings and Fighting Irish also be targeted?
Lawrence Baca, past president of the Native American Bar Association, provides one perspective. Although he has supported the move to drop tribal team names, he has also said that the names Minnesota Vikings and Fighting Irish of Notre Dame aren't offensive because they were adopted by populations who represent those cultures.
Last year, the movement to drop sensitive names received a major boost when the US Commission on Civil Rights declared mascots "offensive to American Indians." The movement has also received attention with the switch by some universities away from such mascots. Miami University in Ohio recently changed its mascot from Redskins to Redhawks, for instance.
Furthermore, the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled in 1999 that the name of the NFL's Washington Redskins was an ethnic slur that should not be trademarked. The team is appealing that ruling.
While those pushing the California legislation laud a shift in public attitudes, they lament resistance that shows up in pressure from alumni to "leave things as they are."
"Being 'caught in the middle' says it well," says the principal of one southern California high school who asked not to be named. He says much of the funding that supports his sports teams comes from alumni funds, and he is loathe to change mascots if it means jeopardizing such funding.
"I would welcome a bill that forces us into the change because then it gets me and other school officials off the hook," he says.
Principals from several targeted schools say that one selling point of the current bill is that it will not require schools to immediately pay the costs of a changeover such as the erasure of floor painting in gymnasiums.
"They know school funding is tight, and [they] don't want these schools to incur extra costs because of this," says Goldberg. "If it takes several years for such uniforms to wear out, they are willing to wait."