By Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
“Racism runs rampant in towns and cities neighboring large Indigenous populations. I’ve been told to ‘go back to the reservation’ and asked by white people to search for their stolen items on the reservation. The drunk Indian trope permeates majority-white towns and cities where Natives live in poverty. Plains Indians have also faced slurs such as ‘prairie n-words’ and our women referred to using the derogatory term ‘squaw.’ Resistance literally runs through our veins. Our schools feature mascots such as Braves, Warriors, and Indians. Absent are the caricatures of mainstream Washington Redskin fandom. We don’t partake in the ‘tomahawk chop’ or reduce heritage to stereotypical chants. Our events usually involve our cultural singing and traditions. We don’t act a fool in headdresses—those are sacred symbols with meaning.” – Northern Cheyenne writer Angelina Newsom.
As the United States undertakes the most significant reckoning of racism in a generation, symbols of white supremacy still loom large. From Confederate monuments to harmful stereotypes in advertising to the names of professional sports teams, American culture is steeped in it.
Eliminating these symbols won’t eradicate racism. But we can’t eradicate racism unless we eliminate them. The Washington, D.C. NFL team is a prime example.
The United States government has authorized 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on the Indigenous people of the land it occupies. An estimated five million to 15 million Indigenous people lived in North America in the 15th century. By the late 19th century, fewer than a quarter million remained.
The motive behind the systematic slaughter and removal of Native Americans was land. Europeans, who were barred from owning land in their homeland, flocked to the New World to claim their homesteads. To justify the violence, Native Americans were portrayed as savages, less human than their “civilized” European counterparts. Their customs, their language and the color of their skin set them apart, and referring to them with a slur based on skin color served to reinforce the stereotype.
Slurs based on skin color and other physical differences are intended to debase and divide.
And right now, more than ever, we need the power of sports to unite us.
Athletes have played a unique role in the nation’s rocky and uneven effort to overcome white supremacy. The activism displayed by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, Anquan Bolden and Malcom Jenkins and their Players Coalition is part of a long legacy that includes Althea Gibson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
The NFL has made strides in recent years, establishing a Social Justice Initiative to work with the Players Coalition and – just last month – changing its stance on player protests like Kaepernick’s. Insisting upon a name change for the Washington team is the logical next step in the League’s journey.
Dan Snyder, the team’s owner, announced last week that the organization is conducting a “thorough review” of the name.
The time for review is over. Native American individuals and organizations have objected to the name from the beginning.
Organized efforts to change the name have been going on for more than 50 years. As National Congress of American Indians president Fawn Sharp said, “This moment has been 87 years in the making, and we have reached this moment thanks to decades of tireless efforts by tribal leaders, advocates, citizens, and partners to educate America about the origins and meaning of the R-word.”