December 31, 2012

Annenberg's "Redskins" survey

I've commented before on the infamous Sports Illustrated poll on Indian mascots. It recently came up again in the debate about the Atlanta Braves' "screaming Indian" baseball cap.

Someone also mentioned the Annenberg survey on the Washington Redskins. I thought this was a different name for the same poll, but no. It seems Annenberg conducted a follow-up to the Sports Illustrated poll a couple of years later.

Here's the story:

Most Indians Say Name of Washington “Redskins” Is Acceptable While 9 Percent Call It Offensive, Annenberg Data ShowMost American Indians say that calling Washington’s professional football team the “Redskins” does not bother them, the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey shows.

Ninety percent of Indians took that position, while 9 percent said they found the name “offensive.” One percent had no answer. The margin of sampling error for those findings was plus or minus two percentage points.

Because they make up a very small proportion of the total population, the responses of 768 people who said they were Indians or Native Americans were collected over a very long period of polling, from October 7, 2003 through September 20, 2004. They included Indians from every state except Alaska and Hawaii, where the Annenberg survey does not interview. The question that was put to them was “The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or doesn’t it bother you?”
Comment:  The Peter Harris Research Group, which conducted the Sports Illustrated poll, never released its methodology, so its results are completely suspect. By explaining its basic methodology, Annenberg has done what Peter Harris didn't.

Unfortunately, Annenberg's methodology confirms that these polls aren't very reliable. Among its demographic problems:

  • It's well-known that relying on telephone landlines skews the results in a conservative direction. Older, conservative people tend to stick with landlines. Younger, liberal people tend to use cellphones.

  • Moreover, a significant subset of Indians living on reservations don't have any phone service. They obviously weren't included in the survey.

  • Alaska is about 13% Native. Excluding Alaska means excluding 100,000 Natives or 2-3% of the total Native population.

  • Meanwhile, excluding Hawaii means excluding one of the most liberal states. We can presume that Hawaiians are more sensitive to mascot issues than residents of other states.

  • Asking people to self-identify as Indians probably skews the results toward wannabes with a small amount of Indian blood. We don't know how they'd answer, but it isn't necessarily the same way as actual Indians.

  • Offensive, bothersome, or wrong?

    Perhaps a bigger problem is the nature of the question asked: "As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or doesn’t it bother you?" Among its problems:

  • The two options aren't symmetrical. Respondents could think the name is offensive but doesn't bother them, or it bothers them but it isn't offensive. Better would be to ask, "Is it offensive or not offensive?" or "Does it bother or not bother you?"

  • Offensiveness is only one aspect of the name. One can object to it on other grounds besides its being offensive.

    As an example, I'm not offended when people use swear words in public. But I don't think these words are good, and I wouldn't name a sports team after them. So a name can be objectionable without offending me personally.

    As another example, I'm not offended when people recite the Pledge of Allegiance at events. But I think it's silly at best and a mild form of brainwashing at worst. It's objectionable because it serves no rational purpose even if it's not offensive.

    The same applies to the "Redskins" name.

    Consider the poll's headline: Most Indians find "Redskins" acceptable. That's not what the question asked. It asked if the name bothers them, as in personally--a somewhat different attribute.

    It's easy to imagine people's ambivalent feelings toward a stereotypical name or mascot. For instance, "It doesn't bother me personally, but if others find it offensive, I think it should go." Or, "It doesn't bother me personally, but I think it's biasing people's perceptions, so it should go."

    In other words, the poll could've asked about more than just the "offensive/not bothersome" duality. It could've asked if the name was good or bad, right or wrong. The actual question is flawed because it doesn't probe the potentially nuanced feelings about "Redskins."

    If the Sports Illustrated survey is anything like the Annenberg survey, both are skewed toward the non-Indian, mainstream, conservative position. Granted, a better poll probably wouldn't reverse the results, with Indians opposing mascots 90-10%. The true feeling toward "Redskins" and other team names and mascots is probably somewhere in the middle, not at either extreme.

    For more on the Washington Redskins, see Kickstarter Campaign to Change Redskins Name and Red·skin n. Dated, Offensive, Taboo.


    Anonymous said...

    Nice job. Another excellent academic dismantling of the poll can be found in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Vol 26, Issue 4, p 381-402 (Nov 2002). "Of Polls and Race Prejudice: Sports Illustrated's Errant 'Indian Wars'" by C. Richard King, et al

    Rob said...

    Another take on the survey:

    Redskins name goes before federal trademark board, but for this writer, there’s no debate

    Robert Raskopf, the attorney representing the NFL in court on the name issue since 1992, trotted out the 2004 poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survery on Thursday, one which is purported to have found that 91 percent of 768 people who identified themselves as American Indians on the telephone were not offended by the Redskins nickname.

    Adam Clymer, a former New York Times reporter who was in charge of the Annenberg poll, laughed out loud when told the team was using his polling results in their media guide at the time. He then gave me perhaps the best reason of all for changing the name:

    “Look, let’s suppose my numbers were 100 percent right, that 90 percent of American Indians were okay with it and that the people on the other end of the phone were actually what they said they were,” he said. “Given that, what if you had a dinner party and you invited 10 people. And by the end of the night it’s pretty clear that nine of them have had a tremendous time and really enjoyed the food and company. But one of them you managed to completely insult and demean, to the point where people around them noticed and it was uncomfortable. So, ask yourself: Were you a social success that night?”