Fighting Racist Stereotypes in Sports One Poll at a Time
By Suzan Shown Harjo
AP reported that the 79 percent who want no name change is a “10 percentage point drop from the last national poll on the subject, conducted in 1992 by The Washington Post and ABC News just before the team won its most recent Super Bowl.” (Eighty-nine percent wanted no change and 7 percent wanted change.)
The AP-GfK poll is a good example of why racism should never be put up to a popular vote, because racism will win every time. (Imagine a poll about the N-word in the 1960s.) Not that everyone polled is racist. Some probably answered out of ignorance or failure to appreciate that the topic is nuanced. Some may even have been surprised to hear that Native Peoples are still around.
The question itself is a product of racial bias. The AP, which keeps the style book for most of journalism, does not capitalize the N in Native, Native American or, as in the question above, “native American Indians,” while it does cap the R-word. One is a designation for nearly 600 Native American Peoples, but is lowercased in AP style, while the other is the name of a private sports club and is always capped.
Notice, too, that AP personalizes the R-word—“Should the Redskins change their team name, or not?”—when its is properly used in the first sentence. However, Native Peoples are not personalized or humanized—simply “native American Indians,” when people and/or nations would be respectful and accurate.
Then, there is the set-up, which weights the question on the side of the offenders and even makes an excuse for them, as if intent lessens the impact of the offense. It simply is not up to the offending class to define the nature of the offense or to say what offends the offended.
The "they" formulation clearly favors the Redskins' position. If you referred to the team as an "it"--a football franchise or a multimillion-dollar corporation--the response might be different.
In other words, asking whether "Redskins" is offensive and asking whether the team should change the name are different questions. Mixing them together only confuses the results. The "don't change" total may include people who find the name offensive as well as people who don't.
The Redskins' intent
The biggest issue is the question itself. Let's break it down into its two parts:
Moreover, dictionaries define it as vulgar, and a long print history confirms that it's a slur. So the issue isn't just what people feel subjectively. It's what the word means objectively, according to the evidence.
It's like asking, "Nixon lied about Watergate. Does that offend you?" The issue isn't how someone felt about Nixon's lies, it's whether he broke the law. Polling people on how they felt about Nixon's crimes would ignore the larger issue.
So whether "Redskins" offends Natives or not is only part of the problem. The word is problematical for several reasons not mentioned. The poll shortchanges the anti-Redskins position.
"Some Indians think 'Redskins' is offensive, but the team didn't intend to offend them, so the Indians are wrong. How do you feel about Indians claiming the name is harmful even though there's no intent to harm? Should we let them have their way based on something they seem to be making up?"
As I've said many times, the intent underlying a racist action is irrelevant. Nineteenth-century Americans didn't think they were harming the Indians or Africans they lifted out of savagery. Minstrel-show performers didn't think they were helping to oppress Negroes.
Would you include these factors in a poll on those subjects? E.g., "Slave-owners genuinely thought a Christian slave was better off than a wild heathen headhunter. Should we allow slavery under those circumstances?"
So the question as written was biased. Here's how the poll could've worded the question instead. Leave the question of changing the name, which would be a messy and disruptive process, out for now. Just ask whether the name is good or bad:
But it's true that many Indians don't seem to mind the "Redskins" name. As shown here:
Woody: American Indians in Va. have no problem with “Redskins”
I especially like the "We have more important things to worry about" argument. Who says caring about "Redskins" means you have to stop worrying about poverty, crime, or healthcare? Saying you object is a simple "yes or no" question that takes only a second to answer. Explaining why you don't have time to worry about it takes more time than just saying, "Yes, it's offensive."
These people seem to be answering a question that wasn't asked. Is the "Redskins" name a high priority with you? A: No. Regardless of whether it's a high priority or not, are you aware that it's an ethnic slur? Does it bother you to be considered a "dirty redskin"? Would you change the name if you could? A: Who knows?
I wouldn't be surprised if this thinking applies to a lot of the AP respondents. They may have been answering the implied question, "Is changing the 'Redskins' name worth a big fuss?" And not the actual question, which is more like, "Should we change the name whether it's a 'big fuss' or not?"
For more on the Washington Redskins, see Snyder: We'll Never Change "Redskins" and "Inuit Chief" Supports Washington Redskins.