Removing names that hurt

The NFL’s Washington team will change its name, which demeans Native Americans. It’s a positive sign that Americans can respect each other.

AP/File
Fans watch the Washington Redskins play a home game against the New England Patriots in October 2019.

What’s in a name? A lot, we are learning.

The decision by Washington’s National Football League team to change its name from a racist slur against Native Americans will remove one of the most offensive nicknames in sports. After 87 years of use, “Redskins” has finally been retired.

The effect should be to deepen the rethinking of names not only in sports but elsewhere in society. The NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs may be the next to reconsider whether its name is appropriate. Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves, and hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks, will be under new pressure to follow. 

The decision by Washington was a financial one. Its corporate sponsors no longer felt comfortable with being associated with the name. They threatened to leave if a change wasn’t made. 

The sponsors themselves were under pressure. Behind their new enthusiasm was a sea change in public opinion. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis in May has seemed to ignite a widespread feeling across racial and generational lines that “enough is enough.” 

Confederate flags and monuments are being seen in a new light – the light of empathy and with more compassion for the experiences of Black Americans. Even brand names such as Uncle Ben’s rice and Aunt Jemima’s pancakes now will disappear from shelves along with their racist connotations.

Native Americans hope that the decision by the Washington team will prompt name changes at the collegiate and high school levels as well. Some 2,200 high schools still use Native American names and mascots, though that number has been shrinking.

The golden rule, it seems, is being applied: How would I feel if I were in their shoes? Ways of thinking do change. Limited views expand and take in the world from broader perspectives. 

History is being revised to portray a more inclusive narrative. One of the grievances from American colonists to the king of England in the Declaration of Independence was his inability to protect them from people they believed were merciless and savage. Contemporary review has shown these were Indigenous societies struggling to defend their own homes and territories, and the English were the aggressors.  

Recently a Supreme Court decision affirmed the rights and existence of Indigenous peoples as Americans, protected by federal law. The court upheld an 1866 treaty between the United States and the Creek Nation that, in effect, confirmed that the tribe rightly still possesses its reservation land in Oklahoma. The land had been given to the tribe as compensation for being removed from its traditional homeland in the southeastern U.S. The forced move westward of some 60,000 Native Americans became known as the Trail of Tears.  

“On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise” that this land “would be secure forever,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the decision. “[W]e hold the government to its word.” 

Those who see nothing wrong with using Native American names for sports teams argue that they are meant to honor these people. But Native Americans say they are much more honored when the U.S. government honors the treaties it has made with them. 

Democracies only exist in practice if the rights of their minorities are protected. That makes the uncovering and correcting of slights toward Black and Native Americans good news for American democracy.

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