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Jewish World Review March 27, 2001 / 3 Nissan, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

Is Chief Wahoo racist? -- IT IS no secret that the civil rights establishment has become a parody of what was once a courageous army for racial dignity and fairness. There was a time when those who claimed to fight against prejudice confronted genuinely terrible injustice: segregated public schools, the bombing of black churches, willful flouting of the Fifteenth Amendment. Back then, civil rights leaders were figures of impressive moral authority who saved the charge of racism for bigots who deserved it: cross-burners in hoods, terrorists who attacked Freedom Riders, haters preaching white supremacy.

No more. "Civil rights" leaders today are typically shakedown artists like Jesse Jackson or racial inciters like Al Sharpton. The old struggle to cleanse the law of distinctions based on color has given way to demands for permanent racial preferences. And "racist" has become an all-purpose smear, suitable for every target: the supporter of welfare reform, the activist who criticizes slavery reparations, the official who calls a budget "niggardly."

Or the sports team named for American Indians.

The US Commission on Civil rights is scheduled to vote next month on a statement condemning athletic teams and mascots with Indian names. According to a draft, "the use of Native American images and team names may violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Department of Educations implementing instructions, which prohibits [sic] discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

If the statement is approved, professional team names like the Washington Redskins and the Chicago Blackhawks -- to say nothing of Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians emblem, and the "tomahawk chop" of Atlanta Braves fans -- will be branded as "harmful stereotypes" and "racist images" that "provide an underpinning for discrimination against American Indian people."

For schools with Indian-themed athletics, the stakes would be even graver. If the University of North Dakota refuses to rename its Fighting Sioux and Florida State keeps rooting for the Seminoles, they could face ruinous lawsuits and lose millions in federal funds.

This is what "civil rights" has degenerated into.

There is nothing original, of course, in the attack on teams with Indian names; the civil rights commission is jumping on a bandwagon that grows more crowded by the month.

Last year the Census Bureau ordered that its promotional materials, which often spotlight athletes, not picture any team with an Indian name or symbol. The mayor of Cleveland has proposed stripping Chief Wahoo's image from all city-owned property. A 1999 Harvard Law Review note recommended "aggressive" prosecution of Indian-named teams under Title II of the Civil Rights Act. The US Patent and Trademark Office even stripped the Washington Redskins of their trademark, citing a 1946 law banning the registration of "disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous, or disreputable" names. (The decision is on appeal.)

Does it really need to be pointed out how idiotic all this is? No athletic team chooses a name or a mascot in order to bring contempt or disrepute on itself. On the contrary. Team names -- those that aren't simply whimsical, like Red Sox or Mighty Ducks -- are intended to evoke characteristics associated with winners: the strength of bears, the power of lions, the bravery of Vikings, the rugged tenacity of cowboys.

Indian team names are in exactly the same category. "Sioux, Seminole, Indian, Redskin, or Brave -- these are all approving expressions of a uniquely American vernacular," observes The Washington Times in an editorial, "a national shorthand for 'bigger' and 'braver' and 'better.' "

Cleveland's ball club would never have changed its named to "Indians" in 1915 if "Indians" were an insult. (According to team legend, the name alludes to Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who played with the Tribe in 1897-99.) Chief Wahoo is no more a racist icon than the Boston Celtics' potbellied Irishman or the San Diego Padres roly-poly, bat-swinging monk. Unlike a grinning, watermelon-munching Sambo -- which would be intolerable as an emblem because it promotes an ignorant view of black people as jovial, juvenile simpletons -- Wahoo, the Celtic, and the Padre are simply stylized caricatures, cheerful cartoon figures that demean nobody and reinforce no negative stereotype.

If teams with Indian names portrayed their namesakes as savages or alcoholics, outrage would be the appropriate reaction. But they don't. They depict Indians -- and by extension themselves -- as noble, courageous, and fierce. The Fighting Sioux of North Dankota is a title of honor -- just like the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

Fortunately, the news is not all bad. Not every member of the Civil Rights Commission is bereft of common sense -- Abigail Thernstrom, a leading scholar of race in America, wants to replace the commission's draft with something far more moderate and reasonable. The popularity of team names referring to Indians, her proposed version observes, "is powerful testimony that the white majority . . . has . . . many positive feelings about Indian peoples." And it points out that what is truly offensive about the name "Redskins" is that it perpetuates a deplorable obsession with skin color.

Unfortunately, that is as far as the good news goes. So far, Thernstrom appears to be a minority of one.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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