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Congress Members Write Letter Against Racist Washington R-Word

10:27 am in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

Redskins Helmet

Congressional support is growing for a change to the name of Washington's pro-football team.

As I have previously discussed, momentum has been building to change the nickname of the Washington, DC professional football team, on the grounds that it is offensive to Native Americans. Thus I noted in March that ten representatives and delegates in the House of Representatives introduced a bill to amend the 1946 Lanham Act governing trademarks so as to cancel protection for the nickname. The bill was referred to committee.

Now a group from the same body, with some overlap in the signatories, has written directly to the team owner as well as the NFL Commissioner, the owners of the 31 other NFL franchises, and the CEO of FedEx (an important sponsor) to urge a name change. The letter says

Native Americans throughout the country consider the ‘R-word’ a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos. Such offensive epithets would no doubt draw wide-spread disapproval among the NFL’s fan base. Yet the national coverage of Washington’s NFL football team profits from a term that is equally disparaging to Native Americans.

And it also says

In this day and age, it is imperative that you uphold your moral responsibility to disavow the usage of racial slurs. The usage of the [“R-word”] is especially harmful to Native American youth, tending to lower their sense of dignity and self-esteem. It also diminishes feelings of community worth among the Native American tribes and dampens the aspirations of their people.

The most prominent signatories in both actions are this mini-movement’s leader, Del. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), the co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus Tom Cole (R-OK) and Betty McCollum (D-MN), and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC).

A spokesman for the team had no comment.

As a recent discussion in The Atlantic points out, the proposed change is “Unpopular, Insufficient, and Necessary.” Earlier this month a poll found that 79% of Americans favor keeping the name — and probably the percentage of the specific team’s fans is even higher (which is why this letter will not likely be the tipping point). Meanwhile, a name change will not in itself cure alcoholism or find jobs for youth on reservations. Still, it is something that needs to happen.

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Fire the Fire Chief II: DC Politics Update

4:32 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

The process of de-African-Americanization of the Washington, DC City Council stalled on April 23, when the special election for an at-large seat that I’ve previously written about (most recently here) resulted in a victory for the interim appointee in the seat, Anita Bonds. Thus the racial composition of the Council remains at six African-American, seven white (including the Chairman). Her plurality was 32.2%, with white Democrat Elissa Silverman getting 27.6% and white Republican Patrick Mara 22.8%. (The Statehood-Green candidate Perry Redd lost badly, coming in 6th at 1.9%, barely ahead of the tally for a candidate who dropped out too late for his name to be removed from the ballot, although I am happy to say that six other people besides me voted for him in my precinct.)

Apart from the composition question, the most significant result here is probably the collapse of the Republican candidacy. In spite of support from the Washington Post, the local Sierra Club chapter, the local LGBT weekly, and numerous others including a robocall endorsement from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Mara could manage no better than a third place finish in his third (and, one would think, last) attempt to win a Council seat. One report published the next day suggested that part of the problem was differences of opinion on how to proceed between the Mara campaign itself and the local Republican chapter, for example on whether Mara should sign an NRA pledge. In any case, it is safe to say that the District’s Republicans are demoralized at least for the moment.

But all that said, our beleaguered fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe is in the news again. A little over a month ago, I wrote on a controversy over inadequacies in the city’s ambulance response. Among others, the chairman of the Council’s public safety committee Tommy (“liveable, walkable city”) Wells castigated Ellerbe over the issue and warned him that his job was on the line. But now it seems that there is a dispute involving arson statistics. The District has loosened its definition of what actually constitutes arson, and Ellerbe seems not to have known this when he reported on success in closing arson cases at a Council meeting last month. The upshot was that he attributed an increase in success rate to employees getting better at their jobs when at least in part it was due to the redefinition. This has not been good for his image, and seems likely to refuel a drive on the part of the city’s white establishment to get rid of him.

There are two other items of interest. First, adding to the momentum to dispense with the football team’s racist nickname, Council member David Grosso intends to introduce a resolution to change the name to “the Washington Redtails,” in part as a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen (i.e., a commemorative group known as the Red Tail Squadron honors the Tuskegee Airmen), and in part because redtailed hawks frequent the area.

Second, the District actually has a budget surplus, and our supposedly controversial mayor Vincent Gray actually wants to spend part of it on the city’s libraries! In part this is a matter of renovation of and improvements to the main, downtown branch, which is housed in a 40-plus-year old building (it needs asbestos abatement, for starters). This is an urgent matter since use of the facility is on the rise (a 40% increase from 2011 to 2012).

Even more importantly imo, the mayor wants to restore Sunday service in all 25 neighborhood branches outside the downtown facility (the only one with Sunday hours at present), which would require hiring 150 new employees. This is important because many residents only have Sundays free, and rely on public transportation, which is quite problematic on Sundays, so that it is not possible for them to get to the downtown branch. They need the library not only for books, but because they lack an internet connection at home and need the internet for a wide variety of practical reasons (such as comparing the programs operating under the Medicare Part D prescription drug program).

The mayor’s overall budget for FY 2014 has been in the hands of the Council since March 28, but hearings on various parts of it are only just beginning. It will be interesting to see if any member dares assert that it is more important, say, to increase the number of bike lanes than to improve library service.

Update Thursday, May 2, 11:50 AM Eastern The statement that hearings on the budget are only beginning is in error; see comment #1.

Also, in today’s Washington Post local columnist Robert McCartney writes about DC’s “young urbanists” and says that the strong showing of their candidate in the April 23 election, Elissa Silverman, who “placed second in a campaign marred by low turnout and the winner’s explicit playing of the race card,” is a challenge to DC’s “Old Guard.” People from the real old guard here, embodied in such institutions as the Federal City Council, of course accuse African-Americans of “playing the race card” whenever they act in a manner that shows their solidarity with the (unfinished in DC) Civil Rights Movement.

“Young urbanists” looks to me to be code for “people who recognize a post-racial situation” in the US, given such points as the Obama presidency. The concept was discredited locally in the last mayoral election and its reputation nationally falls further with every new Obama sell-out.

Bill Against Racist Washington R-Word Introduced in Congress

8:21 am in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

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Will a new bill force a name change for Washington, D.C.'s Football Team?

After the U. S. Patent Office’s Trial and Appeal Board heard a trademark challenge just two weeks ago, yesterday H.R. 1278, the “Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013,” was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. In practice it would cancel the federal trademark protection presently enjoyed by the now widely reviled nickname of the NFL team associated with the nation’s capital. (For general background, see here, updated here and here.)

The bill was authored by Delegate Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) and co-sponsored by Delegates Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who has championed changing the team’s name locally, and Donna Christensen (D-Virgins Islands), and the following Representatives:

Karen Bass (D-CA)
Tom Cole (R-OK)
Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ)
Michael “Mike” Honda (D-CA)
John Lewis (D-GA)
Betty McCollum (D-MN)
Gwen Moore (D-WI)

The Government Printing Office has not yet made the text of the bill available, but according to the Samoan website Talanei, it amends a clause in the existing trademark law, the Lanham Act of 1946, which compels refusal of registration to any trademark that “consists of or comprises . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead . . . or bring them into contempt, or disrepute,” to explicitly include use of the Washington team’s R-word nickname as constituting such disparagement.

The team’s front office had no comment, perhaps realizing that its standard excuse (that it does not “intend” disparagement) has not gone over well lately.

The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, and the discussions I’ve seen tend to downplay the possibility that the committee will even consider the bill; nonetheless, it would appear that momentum is still building to change the name.

Update 3/26/13: the bill’s text.

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Trademark Board hears Racist Washington R-Word

11:59 am in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

As I’ve noted in previous posts (here, updated here and here), lately sentiment has increased in Washington, DC, to change the racist name of its NFL team, as something that reflects badly on the nation’s capital. The team’s own arguments for keeping the name have certainly been refuted.

However, it has always been recognized that moral arguments have little or no effect on the team’s front office and ownership, and that the change will occur only when their bottom line is affected. To that end, a case against the team’s trademarking the name and associated symbols, brought by a group of five Native Americans organized by long-time activist Suzan Shown Harjo, was heard yesterday by the U. S. Patent Office’s Trial and Appeal Board. The hearing by three judges was covered by the Associated Press and reported on the ESPN website and in WaPo. A HuffPo article from yesterday makes some other points.

Basically, what has to be shown to get the trademark cancelled is that the R-word “was disparaging to a significant population of American Indians back when the team was granted the trademarks from 1967 to 1990.” A ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor would not ban the sale of items such as T-shirts with the current team logo, but would remove protection from the sale of knockoff paraphernalia at cheaper prices. A similar case was won at this level in 1999 but the victory was thrown out on appeal, on the technicality that the plaintiffs waited too long to file the action.

The 90 minute hearing included arguments by the opposing attorneys and tough questions to both by the judges. However, it is reported that one judge seemed incredulous when the team’s attorney tried to invoke the technicality that doomed the last proceeding, asking rhetorically “one year is too much?” Two judges questioned the team’s claim that the name actually honors Native Americans, with one of them wondering out loud if the same claim would be made if the team were called “the Washington N-word.”

The team’s general manager was in attendance and responded to reporters’ questions afterward by saying that the team has a positive image, and that he was unaware “if it’s been proven” that the name is offensive to Native Americans.

A ruling is not expected soon (possibly as late as a year hence), and of course would be subject to appeal.

Is the End Near for the Washington R-word? II

11:05 am in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

Redskins Helmet

There's growing support for renaming Washington's football team.

This is an update to last Saturday’s entry on the Washington NFL team’s name. First, for the benefit of people who left the thread before the last comment was entered on Monday, as I note there the Washington Post selected five letters to the editor to publish that day on the subject, of which three supported ditching the current name for good reasons.

There are a few more letters on a possible name change today, mostly humorous (“the Washington Bureaucrats,” “the Drones”), but the real news is that columnist Sally Jenkins, who is the conscience of WaPo‘s sports section if anyone is, has advanced the momentum for a name change with a really trenchant piece.

It seems that as propaganda against changing the name the team’s website (to which no link will appear here since it’s offensive) has lately taken to listing high schools in the nation that also use the R-word as their team’s name — as if the mores out there in Middle America were definitive — and to interviewing their coaches on the kids’ supposed consciousness of the issues. To this Jenkins responds:

I’m willing to hazard that most 10th graders don’t realize a team calling itself [the R-word] might as well rename itself the Darkies, Guidos, or Slant Eyes. I’m pretty sure they are unaware that the term [R-word] dates to the settler era when hunters boasted about shooting down “damned government pets” and peddled Indian scalps as if they were animal pelts along with deerskins and bearskins.

She goes on to satirize the team owner’s appeal to “heritage” as a defense of the name, by noting the actual heritage: the owner who originally coined it was a racist anti-Semite. And there is more, including a choice remark from a participant at that recent symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian (cited in my previous post), and a suggestion that the U.S. Armed Forces get on the owner’s case by reminding him of the American Indians who have served.

I won’t hold my breath waiting for that last one, and I think ultimately the trademark lawsuit mentioned in the previous post may prove decisive. But read the article. My only criticism is that Jenkins should stop spelling out the R-word (or if it’s her editor that’s making her use it he should stop). There are newspapers in this country that have found ways to report on games involving inappropriately-named teams that sidestep mentioning the names, so it is possible.

A suggestion to commenters: wendydavis has persuaded me that it is too extreme to flag comments that spell out the R-word, a slippery slope leading to censorship (see her @ 17, 20, and 30 on the last post). Still, I wish you wouldn’t do it. Imo THE R-WORD IS JUST AS OFFENSIVE AS THE N-WORD.

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Is the End Near for the Washington R-word?

12:00 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

Washington, D.C.’s NFL team is named with a racial slur against Native Americans: you know, the one from the old John Wayne westerns where people say things like “the only good Injun is a dead Injun.” The name has long been controversial, but the team and fans alike have resisted changing it, and even the large African-American fan base has been unmoved by such questions as “how would you like it if they were called the Washington Sambos?”

However, there are signs that the attitude is changing. An insightful piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by local affairs columnist Courtland Milloy explains that the obstinacy is largely because the team’s rise to NFL prominence after it was finally integrated in the early 1960s produced a sense of pride, and it has been hard to disassociate the name from that pride. But as Milloy also points out, the team’s prestige has gone far downhill, so that one basis for resistance to changing the name is fading.

Thus in his recent State of the District address, the mayor pointedly avoided using the word, simply speaking of “our football team,” even though he has backed off any suggestion of requiring a name change as a condition for the team to move back into the District from a Maryland suburb. And WaPo itself is starting to get on board. As its “Ombudsman” (don’t get me started on the inaccuracy of using that term for him) now summarizes, two columnists besides Milloy (a maverick) have now endorsed a name change. An editorial can’t be far behind.

This flurry of reformist sentiment coincides with a symposium held two days ago at Washington’s National Museum of the American Indian, where the issue of racial stereotypes as sports mascots was discussed by panelists like longtime Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who was involved in a 1990s failed lawsuit precisely against the Washington team. The point was made that the best chance of forcing a name change might well be a new lawsuit that is in the works against the team’s trademark (the failure of the last one was due to a technicality).

You also have to wonder if the symbolism of a racist name for the team representing the capital city of a nation with an African-American chief executive might not be getting noticed in the corridors of power. We shall see, but my prediction is that the change will happen, and at a date not too far off.

Hold forth, people, but be forewarned: any comment that spells out the R-word will be flagged.