Roll over Elie Wiesel, and tell Martin Luther King Jr. the news.
You know that up has become down, left is right and hot called cold when defenders of a racially offensive nickname see themselves as victims.
But that, bizarrely enough, is what it has come to in Lancaster.
The School Board’s vote last week to jettison the district’s offending “Redskins” moniker prompted outraged parents to turn their backs in protest. On blogs and in public comments, “Redskins” defenders likened themselves to Selma’s civil rights marchers.
Hordes of high schoolers took to the streets Thursday morning in defense of an objectionable logo. One girl held a sign quoting Elie Wiesel, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I applaud student activism. But you need to pick your causes carefully. When I was a high school senior, we left school to protest the killing of anti-war protesters by National Guardsmen at Kent State University. Somehow I can’t see these students decades from now proudly telling their grandkids about the time “we marched to defend that racially offensive nickname.”
It apparently doesn’t take much to activate some people’s self-righteous sense of being wronged. Hijacking as a “Redskins” defense the Holocaust survivor Wiesel’s reference to Nazi exterminators, or “Redskins” defenders identifying with the marchers instead of the slur-slingers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, lands somewhere between befuddling and clueless.
I knew it was time to call Brenda Christopher.
The former Lancaster School Board member is a prominent “Redskins” defender. I called her to get a sense of what pro-”Redskins” folks are thinking. Why do so many in an overwhelmingly white, suburban district cling to a race-based nickname that offends many Native Americans? Why press the point when it makes them look insensitive and out of touch – if not racist – to many in the larger community? What’s behind the inflated sense of victimhood?
Christopher made a few points, some stronger than others. Foremost was anger over the speed and lack of process with which the 68-year-old nickname was banished. The board in recent years pecked at it, lopping “Redskins” off the scoreboard and from team uniforms – the classic journey by small steps.
Yet two weeks after a public forum with Native Americans and after three schools with Native American enrollments canceled lacrosse games against Lancaster, the deed was done.
“People are upset with the way it was done,” Christopher told me. “If the name needed to change because the culture or the world is changing, fine, let’s sit down and come up with something else. Not here today and gone tomorrow.”
I get that. People felt they were blindsided. There was no referendum or communitywide poll. The consequent eruption of anger, said Christopher, makes “Redskins” defenders look like something they’re not.
“I don’t want a community of good people to be seen as self-centered and racist,” Christopher told me. “We’re just trying to hang on to what we’ve known. You have to give people a chance to understand this.”
Granted, this thing went from simmer to boil in a relative blink. But the “Redskins” debate – usually focused on Washington’s NFL team – has been around for years. Ideally, there would have been more time to educate students on Native American perspectives and to come up with an alternative nickname. It’s always easier to front-load than to back-fill.
But there’s a larger point. Arguing that change comes too soon is one way to stop it from coming at all. It’s never too soon to do the right thing. The board acted to save the district from further embarrassment, criticism and scorn. Why linger on the wrong side of history?
Christopher noted that “Redskins” is not universally condemned by Native Americans. That’s true.
But neither is it just a “small minority” opposing it that she claims. Among the condemners is the National Congress of American Indians, representing more than 250 tribal governments. Add civil rights groups, religious organizations and others, and it begs the question: Why cling to a race-based logo, particularly when it’s objectionable to significant numbers of that race?
And when, worse, scholars say “Redskins” references not just skin color, but the scalps of Native Americans taken for bounty? That’s not a “tradition” worth preserving.
Christopher said that as a blond woman of Polish heritage, she could daily take offense to stereotypical comments – where does the sensitivity stop?
But there is no team nicknamed the “Polocks” or the “Blond Bimbos.” Nor did either group ever face a government-sponsored policy bent on annihilating their population and erasing their languages and cultures. So this notion of racial “oversensitivity” begs for perspective.
We tread carefully with race issues, whether with Native Americans or African-Americans, precisely because their historic treatment is a stain on this country’s history – with consequences that still reverberate.
Which is why seeing a horde of white students gleefully defending their Redskins “identity” is so jarring. At best, it prompts what educators call a “teachable moment.” Christopher and I agree on the need for informational school assemblies or forums, featuring credible Native American scholars and activists. That’s part of the remedy here: More light, less heat.
The people in Lancaster who think of themselves as “Redskins” have had it their way for nearly 70 years. It’s time they heard the other side of the story.