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Redskins, Racial Slurs, and Social Justice Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 25 October 2013

During halftime of an NFL game broadcasted on NBC on October 13, sportscaster, Bob Costas, opined that the ownership of the Washington Redskins should change its name.  Following the lead of President Obama, who said that he would change the team’s name if he were the owner, Costas argued that “Redskins” is “an insult, a slur no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

Team owner, Dan Snyder, reacting to the President’s comments, defended the name, appealing to the team’s 81-year old tradition, that the name is employed by the ownership without malice or bigotry, and that a vast majority of Native Americans are not troubled by the name.

This is a very weak argument.

First, because the perception of language can change over time, the fact that most people decades ago thought a word benign does not mean that it is benign today. Take, for example, the word “Negro.” In the 1950s and 1960s it was the dominant and most acceptable term by which all Americans, white and black, referred to African-Americans. Today, it is a subject of parody by black comics seeking laughs. No one in his right mind would use it in ordinary conversation.

Second, the ownership’s purity of heart is not relevant. For sometimes the nicest and kindest people utter inappropriate language. This may relieve them of culpability, but that does not turn their bad words into good words.

Third, the fact that a minority group has grown accustomed to being described by a slur may be evidence of the group having assimilated into its own community understandings of inferiority deleterious to its own good. Some Catholics, for example, mistakenly refer to themselves as “Roman” Catholic, even though the adjective was a pejorative term invented by post-Reformation Anglicans for the purpose of marginalizing Catholicism as just a regional church like the Church of England.


       WWGD? (Geronimo by Edward S. Curtis, 1909)

What precisely makes the term “redskin” a slur? Like “darkie,” “swarthy,” or “yellow,” “redskin” not only comes across as unflattering – in contrast to, let’s say, “crimson complexion” – it does what all short-hand ethnic slang-terms do, it reduces its subjects to a mere physical property that functions as a badge of inferiority. For it sets subjects apart in such a way that suggests they are not really one of us, persons with intrinsic dignity and immeasurable worth that ought not to be judged, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “by the color of their skin. . . [rather than] the content of their character”

“Redskins” is simply not like the Native American names of other sports teams such as “Seminoles,” “Fighting Illini,” or “Utes,” just as “Dago” is not like “Roman,” “Neapolitan,” or “Sicilian.” It’s one thing to be called the “Fighting Irish,” it’s quite another to be called the “Fumblin’ Dublin Micks.”

As should be evident, I am in agreement with both Mr. Costas and the president that Mr. Snyder should change the name of the Redskins. However, where I part ways with them is over whether this is such an egregious form of social injustice perpetuated by the National Football League that in order for it to be remedied it requires precious network airtime and the assistance of the leader of the free world.

What I think is far worse, virtually ignored by everybody, and a clear cut case of a social injustice, is the way in which a sizeable number of professional athletes (both inside and outside of the NFL) conduct their lives, and how the consequences of this conduct subvert the good of innocent third parties.

The number of out-of-wedlock children sired by professional athletes, with women who are not their wives, is legendary. In some cases, they are indeed targets of enterprising groupies who view such acts of illicit begetting as their “meal ticket.” Nevertheless, regardless of who initiates the contact or the motives of those involved, actual children – vulnerable, defenseless, and innocent – come into existence as a result. These children, by nature, are entitled to a mother and a father committed to each other in matrimony, for absent such an arrangement the successful flourishing of these children is significantly compromised.

The network that employs Mr. Costas, NBC, offers up these athletes as quintessential American heroes, gifted and handsomely paid performers, whose unique collection of skills and talents helps the network sell advertising time to multi-billion dollar businesses that produce everything from beer to computer tablets to the latest X-Box.

This, it seems, is why it is much easier for Mr. Costas to complain about the social injustice of a team name than calling out the fatherless-generating “meal tickets” who help pay his generous salary.

 
Francis J. Beckwithis Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he is also co-director of the Program in the Philosophical Studies of Religion in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book (with Robert P. George and Susan McWilliams) is A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics – The Hadley Arkes Festschrift (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013)
 
 
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Comments (24)Add Comment
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written by petebrown, October 24, 2013
Nice Dr. Beckwith. I love against the grain pieces (having authored a few myself)--you make good points here.


But I put this question to you? Would it work if the team from Washington adopted the "redskin" potato as its mascot???

(The part about out of wedlock births is too big an issue to deal with in a column)
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 25, 2013
I suggest changing the name of the team to: "Multicultural Skins." Then at least they still can be referred to as "The Skins."

But then the progressives will have to come up with the next 'cause celebre' by which to distract us from our culture is disintegration happening right before our eyes.
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written by Patsy, October 25, 2013
Huh. And I always thought that "Roman Catholic" was merely a distinction of which Rite of Catholic I am, e.g. Latin Rite, versus someone who is Syro-Malabar Rite or Maronite Rite, etc. I have never heard a single person use "Roman Catholic" pejoratively.
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written by Grump, October 25, 2013
Yet another example of PC gone awry. According to polls, 90 percent of "Native Americans" don't object to the team's name. Why should a white guy weigh in?

As for "negro," the word is much more accurate than "African-American." There are millions of whites who live or emigrated from Africa. While you're at it, Mr. Beckwith, perhaps you can recall Joseph Conrad's "Nigger of the Narcisus," or redact all the "Nigger Jims" in Twain's Huck Finn to satisfy the thin-skinned. Whoops. When referring to skin, we have to be ultra-sensitive when it comes to mentioning any characteristics thereof.

Then again, at the ripe old age of 71, I grew up watching Amos N' Andy and listening to the likes of Myron Cohen tell jokes about Jews on Ed Sullivan or Pat Cooper deprecate Italians with an exaggerated accent. Back then we all laughed and were much less up tight about "offending" someone. I lived in Phoenix for 20 years near Squaw Peak without controversy although now I'm sure it is on the PC target list.

If you want to rename the team, I'd suggest the Washington Wastrels, which not only has a nice alliterative touch but also is more reflective of the city they represent.

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written by Q, October 25, 2013
If Costas and Obama really cared about moral issues they would point out the absurdity of professional/college sports in our decadent culture and what a waste of time and resources they were. They would point out what an idol they have become.

They are worried about the name of some silly sports time while the masses watch 24/7 media that discusses every possible inane aspect of how semi grown men throws balls at each other.
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written by AZTran, October 25, 2013
"Redskins" is obviously an antiquated term, like "negro," and is redolent of time when, due in large part to movies, we viewed "the Indians" as our enemies in war. But if it is a pejorative, it is a very mild one. It is not associated with de jure discrimination as the word "negro" is.

If I were the owner I too would keep the name. No one likes to be told what to do. Yes, "Redskins" can be viewed as a mild pejorative but it is so mild that is not capable of injuring anyone. What is really going on is leftist bullying. A similar thing occurred with the term "blacks." Even though there is nothing wrong with the term whatsoever, and was in fact the term chosen by blacks, there arose a pressure to start using the term "African Americans" instead. I refuse to do so because it makes me feel manipulated. Same thing with the name of the Washington Redskins.
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written by Dan Deeny, October 25, 2013
An interesting article. I went to the site you indicate by "is legendary." You choose an interesting word in "legendary." Do you think it is the right one?
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written by Stu, October 25, 2013
Except that the term isn't a slur and was actually coined by Native Americans to refer to themselves as compared to....yes, you guessed it...."white skins".

That's the finding of the Smithsonian's senior linguist. But quite often, actual history gets in the way of wanting to be offended.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, October 25, 2013
Patsy

Amng Catholics in the UK, the Remnant, especially object to "Roman Catholic" and tend to refer to themselves as "Papists," in rather the same way that members of the Society of Friends have adopted "Quaker."

Catholics of Irish descent (the vast majority of Catholics in the UK) tend to use "RC."

In France, which I know well, people would find « Catholique Romaine » bizarre.
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written by Athanasius, October 25, 2013
I agree with the larger point of the article that it is hardly brave for Costas to speak out on the name issue while ignoring the larger morality of the players issue. I just think the whole thing is silly. We need to thicken our skins, whatever color they are, and learn to laugh at the silliness of it all.

Even sillier is a school with French name using Irish as the mascot and not even using green as the school color.
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written by Howard Kainz, October 25, 2013
Some of these issues are of the "tempest in the teapot" sort. The basketball team at Marquette University used to be called the Warriors. The demand to change the team name caused immense controversy and distraction -- alumni refusing any further contributions, students marching, etc. But aren't there many other warriors besides native Americans?
The term, "African American," is also not very accurate, since not all blacks come from Africa.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 25, 2013
Surely some of us have heard in recent days that the name "Oklahoma" is a Choctaw Indian language name meaning...wait for it..."Red Man."

Our pop-culture now refers to men as white, black, yellow and red, etc,...without offense.

Because the pop culture condones abortion and child abuse, it has to have some impoverished substitute to cling to/assert its own moral standing. Costas serves up an example of that.

It was interesting to see the note that "Roman Catholic" is historically a pejorative. But most in my Church don't seem to care about our authentic culture - so the question stands - does this even matter?
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written by Richard A, October 25, 2013
Interesting point. I think you're mistaken to make this a subject of discussion in the Catholic Thing, though.

I live in Michigan, the first Western government in modern times to abolish the death penalty (I understand that King Canute also abolished the death penalty in his realms, but that was the ignorant eleventh century). Were the death penalty to be re-instated in my home state, I would not thereby consider that I lived in an intrinsically unjust society. I won't advocate for it though, because it would undermine the pro-life cause. It shouldn't, of course, since even the Bible makes clear that proper application of capital punishment AFFIRMS rather than undermines the sacredness of human life. This is a distinction that is not comprehensible to most Americans today. Nor is the distinction between "Redskins" and "Seminoles". If it's insulting to the Indian/Native American/Aboriginal American population to apply our name for them to our athletic enterprises, then it's insulting. Surrender on "Redskins" and you'll be having to explain why "Braves" isn't an insult. People who think that the Pill and Viagra are the same kind of drug because they both facilitate sexual activity cannot be trusted with the argument you are advancing. Come back in a hundred years.

There is, moreover, an admirable trait in the American character (one of few remaining, and that diminishing) which is ready to take another person's insult and turn it into a compliment. "Yankee Doodle" started as a derogatory jingle sung by those sophisticated Cockneys about those rubes across the ocean, and we took it and played it while marching into battle against them. "Michigander" was an insult levelled by Abraham Lincoln at a political opponent, Lewis Cass. Now it's what we generally call ourselves. By the 1970s William Milliken, the best governor Michigan Democrats ever had, decided it was an insult, because ganders are male geese and what about all those women who live in Michigan? So he invented the unlovely-sounding "Michiganian". And that is about the seriousness of the 'this-is-an-insult' crowd. If I'd thought 'Michigander' was an insult before, I'd take it as a compliment just because of the idiocy of the word's public opponents.

And, as you aptly pointed out, the NFL has much bigger problems than what the folks in Washington call their football team.
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written by jan, October 25, 2013
I think Mr. Beckwith rightly characterizes the arguments adduced in favor of keeping 'Redskins' as weak. However, his argument that the word is racist and therefore deplorable is also weak.

He explains that the word redskin is unflattering. Is it really though? I always thought Indian complexion was attractive. John Smith at least apparently concurred.

Second, he says that the use of the word objectifies, inferiorizes and sets the referent apart from the rest of us. Dealing with each in turn:

1. Objectification can be fostered by certain words, true. Not sure if the word 'Redskins' really does that effectively though.

2. Hard to see how celebrating the refusal of Indians to be slaves of anyone inferiorizes them.

3. Yes they are set apart, but for the purpose of admiring their warlike qualities, not for the purpose of removing their civil liberties.

It is impossible to deny that groups of people taken as a whole exhibit certain traits in a more pronounced way and are distinguishable thereby from other groups. To make such an observation is not necessarily unkind; and to deny the truth of the observation defies reality. Agreeing to trash the word 'Redskins' is therefore to dance to the tune of a certain political ideology which insists that all differences between groups of human beings are merely skin deep.
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written by Mrs. Rene O'Riordan, October 25, 2013
Being called "pale face" doesn't bother me one bit - Rene
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written by ROB, October 25, 2013
Why would the least bit of attention be paid to an ignoramus, in all things not excluding sports, like Bob Costas. Indian names for sports teams reflect the popular perception that American Indians were proud, resourceful and warlike, noble even. There is no intent to defame them. Quite the contrary, Indians are exactly what you want your football team to be.
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written by Seanachie, October 25, 2013
"such an egregious form of social injustice perpetuated by the National Football League that in order for it to be remedied it requires precious network airtime and the assistance of the leader of the free world."...or an article in The Catholic Thing. Go Redskins!
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written by bob, October 25, 2013
nonsense, mind your own business.
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written by DRH, October 25, 2013
"...it reduces its subjects to a mere physical property that functions as a badge of inferiority...."

Note that thisis the only real attempt to argue *why* the term is objectionable... but it's merely an assertion. "Redskin" doesn't reduce ANYONE to "a mere physical property" any more than saying "black", "white" or "brown" does when applied to other races. All of those are perfectly acceptable, last I checked. (Though some busybody is always trying to find some ne faux "outrage", and I've been busy this week, so maybe I missed teh announcement.
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written by Christina, October 26, 2013
I have no problem with the name change. In fact, I could care less. The thing I get annoyed about is these are the people who will eventually be going after the Christian churches for not allowing gay marriage in the church. You already see it in Canada; pastors and priests in trouble with the state for "hate speech" when preaching values. That is what troubles me. It never ends with the PC police, and one day their aim will be pointed at us.
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written by Jacob, October 26, 2013
If you're going to split hairs Mr. Beckwith, and since you apparently didn't realize, the term 'Catholic' is just as offensive as 'Roman Catholic'.
We're Christians, followers of Christ, members of the One True Church.
As we all know, 'catholic' only means universal, so it's weird to call ourselves "universalists" and not name ourselves after Christ our Lord, as Christians have done for quite some time.

I really like Roman Catholic.. It sounds nice and it's more accurate than Catholic, even if it was bigots who thought it up!
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written by Michael, October 26, 2013
The tribes of Native Americans that were indigenous to the area in and around the Potomac River on the banks of what are now Maryland, Washington, DC and Northern Virginia were the Piscataway [also known as the Conoy, the Moyaone's (which meant the "king's house" after their tribal chief's residence), and the Tayac (a place name)]. Besides the Piscataway, there were also the Nacotchtank (also known as the Anacostans). In 2012, the citizens of the State of Maryland officially recognized two sub groups of the colonial Piscataway. Considering Washington's home field in now located in Landover, MD it seems a natural fit - the Washington Piscataways. You would not have to change the logo on the uniforms/helmets/paraphernalia.
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written by Jorge, October 26, 2013
The Army of the Political Correctness keeps marching on.
I used to think that team names had to do with a way to identify the team with the context, the town, the region (New York Knicks, Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Rays); or with some characteristic that was supposed to inspire the team members regarding their performance in sports (Wildcats, Longhorns, Bulls, Hornets). In the case of the Redskins, I thought that the inspiring characteristic was the fighting spirit of the American Aboriginals (General Custer can say one thing or two about it). Some fighting spirit is quite needed in sports. From this last point of view, the name chosen for the professional football team of the American capital looks appropriate.
Finally, "leader of the free world" sounds a bit outdated.
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written by Noah Vaile, October 27, 2013
The whole idea that a word, through misuse, can have its meaning changed is frightening. I remember watching Cowboys & Indians movies in the fifties and the "Redskins" were greatly respected and feared for their craftiness, stealth, tracking, hunting and warrior abilities, among others.

The same with "Drums Along the Mohawk" and "Northwest Passage", two of my all time favorite flicks. The Indians were portrayed as savage, for the most part, but not demeaned.

It is that aspect that the Redskins football team is recognizing.

It is flagrant prejudice and demeaning intimation that the politically correct wish to honor in their own way by forcing a name change.

Just BTW: The word "nigger" didn't exist until Northerners invented it. Southerners called Negroes, 'Nigra'(Negro pronounced Southern style), which sounded like "nigger" to the tone-deaf northern ear. Who then used it derogatorily.

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