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Lancaster’s decision is just first step

The parallels are striking – and not all that reassuring.

As the Lancaster School Board was deciding unanimously to drop the nickname Redskins for its sports teams, defenders of this official form of bigotry were calling the board members names and threatening their re-elections. Threats to target the district’s budget and capital projects in the May 19 vote also swirled.

The attitude – if not the means – is not all that different from the same cultural arrogance that jeopardized Native Americans in the first place, forcing them onto geographic reservations as well as economic ones – think casinos and gas stations – just to survive.

While physical attacks aren’t the norm anymore, the inability of so many to put themselves in their shoes and recognize the pain caused by demeaning symbolism is just another indication that we haven’t progressed as far as we like to think.

The difference is that, if election results are an accurate barometer of the character of an electorate, the social Luddites now constitute only a small part of Lancaster’s population.

At least that’s the hope.

But it also means that the fight is only half over in a district where officials were slowly moving in the right direction before boycotts by teams in Akron, Lake Shore and Niagara Wheatfield accelerated the process.

While the district deserves plaudits, its decision won’t really be ratified until residents vote for two School Board members and decide budget requests this spring.

Board President Kenneth Graber, undoubtedly eager to let passions die down, would not comment on the electoral threats except to say that he hopes people “would come out and vote positively to care about children.”

With school elections in May instead of November, when more people show up, the threats cannot be ignored. It wouldn’t be the first time a small but passionate minority hijacked a low-turnout election to send the wrong message while most voters stayed home.

Because New York’s crazy school district borders don’t follow town lines, it’s hard to gauge how many people could vote. But the district’s bulk mailings go to between 18,000 and 19,000 households, a spokeswoman said.

Yet only a little over 2,600 voters decided the district’s course last year. That leaves a lot of room for a relatively small number of people to make headlines by taking Lancaster back to a time the board has tried to leave behind.

Granted, budgets can be voted against for other reasons; so can candidates. Still, with the attention given the racial slur, it will be hard not to see the election – especially for the two board seats – as a barometer of what kind of place Lancaster wants to be.

Of course, if they really want to neuter the opposition and defuse any electoral threat, the two incumbents could jump the gun on the process for picking a new name: With tongues firmly in cheek, they could propose the team be called the Lancaster Whiteskins. That would put things in context even for those who most stubbornly want to cling to the 1950s, when demeaning caricatures of Native Americans were a TV staple.

The board’s unanimous decision says Lancaster today is better than that.

But it’s a statement that will have to be repeated by a lot more than just those seven people.