Redskins and Crackers: What’s In a Name?
Veteran journalists and educators, Kevin Blackistone (Washington Post/University of Maryland) and Dave Zirin (journalist, author and host of Edge of Sports), discuss the flawed methodology of (and worse history behind) a recent poll claiming that “9/10” Native Americans are not offended by the term “redskins.”
NARRATION: You know, the racism in this country is in the foundation of the buildings that this country says it’s built upon. All these colonial buildings is in the foundation of this country. And you know, we’re constantly trying to tell America that you need to wake up. You know, America represents oppression throughout the world, but they don’t recognize that they’re part of the problem. And racism manifest itself in many different ways, and now it’s the sports. The whole sports industry. And you know, they just don’t get it. Why is it that somehow in this country’s history and the way that they took our lands, colonized, exterminated the Indians’ mindset like if we were expendable? You know, that’s the tune of racism in this country and its founding. To the point to where they feel they can get away with using Indian mascots, the Redskins. What does that really mean?
JARED BALL: Well, the other thing I definitely wanted to ask you both about–you’ve talked a lot about it, written a lot about it over the years, been following it for years. The more recent poll put out by the Washington Post saying 9/10 Native Americans do not think that the name is offensive–and I want to get it right because there was some pushback saying even in their own research saying, this wasn’t them saying that the name was okay. They were just saying that they didn’t find the word itself racist.
Kevin, I’ll start with you again. What is your response to this controversy? As we sit just outside Washington, D.C., what is your response having covered this for a long time, watched this issue for a long time?
BLACKISTONE: You know, it’s really not about polls. And I don’t really like polls, no matter who does them and what the result is. It still does not defeat what the American Psychological Association found in their studies on the impact on Native youth. It doesn’t change.
BALL: Research not cited in this poll, by the way.
BLACKISTONE: It doesn’t defeat what we’ve learned about etymology of the word. The way it’s been wielded against Native folk in this country. It doesn’t defeat what people like Susan Harjo have been saying year after year after year.
BALL: Officially I think since ’92 she started?
BLACKISTONE: Well, you can actually go back to ’72. I believe when she first moved to D.C. from Oklahoma, where she grew up a huge football fan and went to her first NFL game in the city, and looked around and wondered whether or not she was going to get out. Am I next on the spit? It almost seems as if even though we’re the Post under contract, and I know some of the people work in the polling department and it’s an outstanding polling department but this doesn’t, in fact, none of this is defeated for me. I’m trying to make this documentary about this entire struggle, but it really energizes me because the way you stated exactly what the question was it speaks really to education, right? It doesn’t speak to something else.
DAVE ZIRIN: Where do you even begin with this horseshit poll? They talked to 500 people in 50 states who over the phone said, yeah, I’m Native American. And they said, oh, does the word Redskin offend you? No it doesn’t offend me. Great, moving on to the next question. Now when I’m asked about the poll about the name, I’ve been asked this in some interviews, my response is which poll are you talking about? Oh, are you talking about the one from Cal State, San Bernardino, that shows that 67 percent, when asked the question, and think about how it’s a different question, do you think this name is racist or offensive, how 67 percent–not does it bother you or are you offended by this name. No 67, do you think it’s racist? 67 percent said of course it’s racist, it’s a racial slur. 67 percent–and actually I’m very sympathetic to the argument that numbers don’t matter, that racism is like pregnancy. There’s no such thing as being a little bit pregnant, you’re either racist or you’re not. And if it is then the percentages should not matter.
But I’m deeply bothered with how the polling folks did this. I’ve interviewed Scott Clement, who heads the polling department. He’s very intelligent, very thorough, very serious person, but that doesn’t mean he’s also infallible, and they made a big mistake here. They made a big mistake because they don’t understand the issue of verification. They don’t understand to be Native American in this country is in and of itself a political act. It’s not an ethnicity, it’s not a race. It’s not the sort of thing you either sort of are. It’s the sort of thing that you have to fight to be and that there we get to issues of tribal law. You get to issues of enrollment. And those are the folks who should be asked. And so is the name offensive? Let’s go down the long list of tribal councils that have called on the team to change the name. The list is as long as our bodies. Then you have to the question, either these tribal councils are either profoundly out of touch with the people they talk to and live with or that there’s something wrong with this poll.
And I’ll tell you just another thing. Why is it that when this poll came out immediately you had number one trending on twitter #imnativeiwasnotasked of people saying this is totally offensive, what are you talking about? And you could not find one Native American person who was like, thank goodness this poll came out, I’m 90 percent, and I feel like I’m silenced by the tribal councils, thank goodness. That’s not what you get. Instead what I got was 24 straight hours of interns at places like the Daily Caller and Bright Bark and these right wing sites, because I’ll just say real quick, it’s like one of the enduring victories, I’ll call it victories, of the Civil Rights movement was that racism was no longer polite and able to be said.
I’ve certainly heard arguments of people that doing that just pushes it underground and maybe that’s more poisonous and I get that. But that’s one of the victories of the Civil Rights movement like the Lee Atwater thing which Trump is rolling back. Like this idea that now if we’re going to be racist we have to speak in code because the Civil Rights movement defeated the idea of being openly racist, but this was the exception. So this is the last place for largely white people to be able to be racist and proud. And so when you challenge that you’re challenging something very sacred to them.
BALL: That was definitely one of the things I wanted to quickly cover, is what we were talking a little bit off camera about the reaction of the sports talk radio media that I’m most familiar with in this area, that I’ll leave it to that. That it was all white men praising this poll as if a burden had been lifted off their shoulders that we could move on, all the critics would be shut up. Before you respond to talk about that, if you could weave into your responses just a little bit of the history for those who are watching this who don’t know this team, who don’t know the history of this name. Why in particular is it difficult, if not fully incorrect, is not about disparaging anyone but about praising a group of people which is usually a team’s first line of defense? And then respond a little bit about how media covered this in the city, if you would. Or my critique, at least.
BLACKISTONE: Well, first of all, media didn’t cover this as an issue in the city until according to my research 1988. When a conversation between the columnist at the Washington Post, Cohen and another Native person laid out for him the etymology of the word and their problem with the word. And he wrote a column at that time saying this is outrageous, we need to change this name.
BALL: This is about whites collecting scalps of indigenous people for money. This is not about the stereotype of right.
BLACKISTONE: You can read 19th century advertisements for redskins which are scalps.
BALL: Priced by age and gender.
BLACKISTONE: Which by the way at another level right is really about the eradication of people of this country. So it’s not just about a classified ad, a genocide.
BALL: But we’ll go back and we’ll ask 500 of you, allegedly.
BLACKISTONE: Right. So and then, if you go back and you understand the history of the team. The last team in the NFL to integrate, which did so only under threat of bayonet from the federal government because we were playing in a new stadium, or they were to play in a new stadium that was funded by federal money. A team that was imported here from the city of Boston by an avowed racist in George Preston Marshall, you begun to get a whole other understanding of this team. And then not only that, but the fact that over the years not only had he drenched the team in this ugly history of America in terms of it’s relationship to Native people, as well as with the Confederacy, because he wanted to hold on to the market of Southern states that he held. But also creating this fiction about the team honoring a man who was a part of the team as being Native who in fact was not Native at all. He’s as phony as the cheerleaders that you had.
BALL: Probably a lot of people that took the poll, who picked up the phone and answered that phone.
BLACKISTONE: Exactly. So this entire thing is based on a fiction.
ZIRIN: Yeah, Kevin just broke it down big time. It’s the stubborn defense of this name by the die-hards has taken a very, very ugly turn in recent years. Because I moved to this town around 20 years ago. Back that time it was just one of those things where I was just sort of like, damn, that name is kind of messed up but hey, go team, you know. I was into them. You know, I loved Darrell Green. I loved moving to this town. Even growing up in NYC it’s like I was into John Riggins and the Smurfs, I mean how can you not love this team?
BALL: It was a good time to be a sports fan around here.
ZIRIN: Yeah, so it’s just sort of like, as far as the name went it was like, damn, that’s uncomfortable. But no one’s really saying anything about it as far as I see. And of course one of the things the movement has done is it has reminded me of that quote by we could call it, Boots Riley, you can’t say shit when you’re riding the fence, or [R.N. Dotty Roy] who said, you know, once you see things you can’t unsee them. There’s no more innocence. So it’s like everyone has seen this now.
And so now I’ve seen things that I’ve never saw before that are really upsetting. Like my wife’s family goes to Ocean City, Maryland. which tends to be like, working class white beach community. And you see shirts that have the Confederate flag and the Redskins’ logo intertwined. Or when you saw Gillespie when he was running for governor in Virginia turn it into a wedge issue against Terry McCullough. So it’s this idea of it becoming just another thing in the tired red state, blue state culture war, and oh, are you for political correctness and Trump and all this stuff instead of just taking a step back and being like, well, wait a minute. Is it a racial slur or isn’t it? It is? Should a team have it or not? Do you think it should?
Then you want to know the deal breaker question is, I tried to ask this of Roger Goodell, he wouldn’t answer it, he walked away. I said, if you started a new expansion team tomorrow would you consider calling it Indians? And he just walked away. Not in a million years would an expansion team have a Native American name on it now.
BALL: The other question I have is what percentage of the so called indigenous population would it take to say okay, we’re going to change the name. In other words, if it was 9/10 that said we don’t like the name, does that mean that they would’ve changed it immediately after this poll? Is the 67 percent number that you’re citing, if they took that number seriously, is that high enough? Not high enough?
ZIRIN: They would be blasting the poll the same way we’re blasting the poll.
BALL: That’s what I’m wondering, right?
BLACKISTONE: And that’s why I don’t like polls. Because even United Nations did a poll, remember? They did none, and couched the question just right, and they got a very defining response.
BALL: That was part of the critique that I had, was that you, not only a long time journalist but–.
ZIRIN: Part of their question was like, called like in polling, you’re kind of leading the person. They’re like, would you be comfortable calling a Native American a redskin?
BALL: So that was the questioning methodology was what I was–and you’re not only a journalism practitioner but you teach it as well, and we take classes on methodology and it’s just very basic. How are you writing the question? Who was the target of the question? What other questions are being asked and what are not being? And it was so obvious that this poll is flawed, yet even trying to raise that as a point of criticism, not even getting into the [weeds] or something more complicated, we don’t even want to talk about that. So, yeah.
BLACKISTONE: I’ll just say this as a son of Washington, as the song goes. I grew up in a family that has had season tickets forever. My father had them when the team played at Griffith Stadium. He grew up in Ledroit Park right over the wall from Griffith Stadium.
ZIRIN: You don’t know Kevin’s story with the name and his father?
ZIRIN: Please, please, please, I know you’ve told it a million times but you’ve got to tell them. This is too good.
BLACKISTONE: So in the early 1960’s when the new stadium, D.C. Stadium, was being built and the team was still refusing to allow any black players on the team. My father and his friends started boycotting the games, and they went to watch the Baltimore Colts play instead which had a number of black players. Obviously Bobby Mitchell comes here, the team integrates, they play. Then about 1965 I think my father became very very disturbed about one of the great traditions of the team and that was to have the great Redskins band play before each game, the song Dixie, which encouraged people in the stands to fly the Confederate flag. And from time to time, fisticuffs would break out between black and white fans.
So my father wrote a letter to the then-acting president Edward Bennett Williams and said, Mr. Williams, with all due respect, this song is offensive to a number of your season ticket holders like me, and we would like to ask that you respect our wishes and our dignity and cease the playing of this song and stop treating the negro ticket buyer with disrespect. And to Edward Bennett Williams’ credit–he was running the team then because George Preston Marshall was kind of incapacitated by age and illness. He wrote my father back and said, thank you for bringing this to my attention, I’ll see that this is taken care of. And they haven’t played the song Dixie since.
BALL: So now instead of this fight to D.C.
BLACKISTONE: They stopped playing. They used to play the entire song Dixie.
BALL: Now it’s just the touchdown.
BLACKISTONE: This wasn’t even the fight song. This was the Confederate national anthem [inaud.]. So the point being that they can change and they have changed, and they can’t be sensitive. And the world didn’t end. But I must say that as someone who grew up and lived and died each week with the success and failures of this team, I no longer do. I no longer do. I have lost so much of my fanaticism for this team over the stance they’ve taken on this issue. I mean when you think about, when I heard Dan Schneider say never and put that in caps, he sounded like George Wallace standing in the door of the school.
ZIRIN: Segregation is forever.
BLACKISTONE: Segregation forever. Man, that’s exactly what it sounded like. So how can I cozy up with that now? I really can’t. I don’t buy tickets to go to games anymore. It’s troubling.
ZIRIN: Let me tell you. Look my son is, for better or worse–and we can talk about the morality of this–an NFL fanatic, and he loves to play, and all the rest of it. He has heard, he’s 8 years old, and he’s heard me talk about this name for some time, and he’s decided that this is so upsetting to say this, he’s decided that the only moral choice is to be a Cowboys fan. See, that’s the problem. We go too far. He said I have to be the enemy of this racist name.
BLACKISTONE: But now the front-line enemy of Native folk.
ZIRIN: I know, that just galls me to no end. And he’s got his Dez Bryant jersey and he wears it to school and people in this town are like hey what are you wearing that for. You know, random people on the street and that just makes him like..
BALL: And he’s like, because I’m standing up against racism.
ZIRIN: Yeah, in a Cowboys jersey, so I’ll just say Lord help our seeds.
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