May 14, 2013

AP poll on Redskins is flawed

A recent AP poll claimed 79% of Americans don't want to change the "Redskins" team name. I reported on the poll and briefly questioned it, as I usually do with such polls. Now here's an analysis of its flaws:

Fighting Racist Stereotypes in Sports One Poll at a Time

By Suzan Shown HarjoThe Associated Press and GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications conducted 1,004 telephone interviews in English or Spanish from April 11 to 15, framing the question this way: “Some people say that the Washington Redskins should change its team name because it is offensive to native American Indians. Others say the name is not intended to be offensive, and should not be changed. What about you: Should the Redskins change their team name, or not?” 11 percent said change the name; 8 percent don’t know; and 2 percent, no response.

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.
Comment:  Let's go through the poll's possible flaws:

  • Someone said the sample size of 1,004 respondents is too small. I don't know about that. I think samples of that size are usually valid.

  • The phrase "native American Indians" is weird, but I don't know if it would affect the outcome. The lower-cased "native" shouldn't matter since the pollsters interviewed people by phone, not in writing.

  • Personalizing the issue--"Should the Redskins change their team name?"--is a potential problem. When you treat the Redskins as a "they," it reminds people of the players. You're basically asking people to judge athletes who may be their idols or heroes or role models.

    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.

  • Another problem is the final choice: "Should the Redskins change their team name, or not?" What about a response such as, "I think the name is offensive, but not enough for the team to change it"? Or, "I think the name is offensive, but I don't think the team should have to go through the expense and hassle"?

    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:

  • On the anti-Redskins side, the name isn't just offensive to Natives. It's offensive to non-Natives who dislike ethnic slurs. And there are people like me--Native and non-Native alike--who aren't offended emotionally, but think it's wrong intellectually.

    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.

  • On the pro-Redskins side, Harjo has identified the key issue. The "not intended to be offensive" clause contradicts and minimizes the Natives' concerns. It basically says:

    "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?"

  • A final note: I believe the last item mentioned always lingers in people's mind. Ideally, you'd put the pro-Redskins argument first half the time and last the other half. If the pro-Redskins argument was always last, that alone gave it an advantage.

  • 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:The Washington football team says "Redskins" is a source of pride and tradition. Native Americans and their supporters say "Redskins" is an ethnic slur comparable to the N-word. Which of these is closer to your position?Some Indians okay with slur

    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.


    dmarks said...

    What am I missing?

    "11 percent said change the name; 8 percent don’t know; and 2 percent, no response."

    That leaves the rest, the vast majority, with an unknown response?

    Anonymous said...

    Is it weird to me that they say "Indians have no problem with blah blah blah", as if all Indians all have one mind? *facepalm*

    Rob said...

    The numbers you listed are the breakdown of the remaining 21%, DMarks. The other 79% don't want to change the name.

    dmarks said...

    Ah. Quibbling about the remaining 21% is like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. And yes I want the name changed