Every once in a while a small controversy comes along that helps explain a big problem. This National Football League season has provided such a controversy. The name of Washington, DC’s football team, the Redskins, is under fire. “Redskins” is an offensive term and therefore inappropriate for the team representing our nation’s capital. That’s kind of obvious, right?
Most Republicans don’t think so. They defend the name, as they do other Native American–based team names, such as the college football champion Florida State Seminoles, calling them tokens of “honor.” They claim that the names celebrate a “heritage” and “tradition” of “bravery” and “warrior spirit,” and they publicly wonder: What’s the problem?
The Onion, that fine news source, captured it in one neat, snide sentence: “A new study…confirmed that the name of the Washington Redskins is only offensive if you take any amount of time whatsoever to think about its actual meaning.” So what’s keeping Republicans from thinking about it?
For one thing, Republicans tend to wear a set of blinders, crafted and actively maintained by the party’s functionaries and its media priesthood. They also suffer from mental roadblocks shared by American whites more generally, including a thin, often myth-based “knowledge” about Native Americans. Collectively, all of this blinds Republicans to what it’s like to be on the receiving end of power at home and abroad.
That said, the GOP’s power brokers know the party is facing a demographic time bomb, so why do they let their media minions form an offensive line to protect the Redskins name? Nationally, the Republicans’ short-term hopes and long-term survival may hinge on whether they can manage to make the party welcoming to non-whites. Yet they proudly wear these blinders, as I once did, continuing to “honor” American Indians—as they never would a team called the Whiteskins, the Brownskins, the Blackskins or the Yellowskins. Here’s a little breakdown on why.
Blinder 1: Intent Is Everything
As I have written previously, Republicans have a convenient belief that when it comes to racism, it’s all about intent. With the Redskins name, this is a particularly powerful blinder because, as one sportscaster said, “I strongly believe that there is zero intent to offend Native Americans among Redskins fans or football fans in general.”