Black-Indigenous solidarity beats NFL ‘Slurskins’

Not Your Mascots

Recent events expose that a qualitative change has occurred in this period of history. Marxist social science explains how real changes — those capable of empowering our entire working class and tipping the balance of power toward us — come from the actions of our class.

To illustrate this, just consider the rapid changes that have occurred in the last two months, since the police murder of George Floyd — from cops being charged in Minneapolis, to the proposed dismantling of the city’s police force while other cities are considering the same; the toppling of racist statues, confederates and slave owners to genocidal colonialists and imperialists, from Gen. Lee to the horror of the Congo, King Leopold of Belgium. 

The “slow wheels” of justice even sped up in the Supreme Court with victories regarding Indigenous sovereignty and abolishing one type of discrimination against LGBTQ2S workers. IBM felt compelled to join in by ceasing the sale of its facial recognition software to police departments for mass surveillance and racial profiling.

And now, after decades of Indigenous protests, the National Football League team in Washington, D.C., announced July 13 that it would drop the racist name “R*dsk*ns” and all associated logos.

All of this is a result of the militance and defiance that the Minneapolis Black community inspired when they courageously took on a terrorist military force in their neighborhoods — the police — and even burned down a precinct. 

The movement they inspired went around the world. The people’s willingness to risk life and limb unarmed against the militarized defenders of the ruling class scared the hell out of the bosses — so now they are on the defensive and willing to grant some reforms, and their corporate entities and political puppets are responding in kind.

In fact, although Washington team owner Dan Snyder had vowed to never change the name, he reversed his position in mid-July when major corporate sponsors like FedEx and Amazon threatened to pull their association with the team. 

Here’s what Snyder told USA Today back in 2013: “We’ll never change the name, it’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also reversed his longstanding support for the name and now suddenly sees the light, recognizing, he said, that the name is a racial slur that should be changed.

Capitalist collusion

There had been tremendous pressure from on high to keep the name, most recently coming from President Donald Trump, but also backed up by unscientific opinion polls conducted by the Washington Post. These polls were largely responded to by white fans of the Washington team, as Indigenous people pointed out repeatedly. The Washington Post colluded with Dan Snyder for years to make it appear that the team name was acceptable to Native people.

However, recently a more thorough, larger and more scientific survey was done by the University of California, Berkeley, and published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science. The study of 1,000 Native Americans found 49 percent were offended by the name. However, for those who actively engaged in their Native or tribal cultures, the number rose to 67 percent. And for young people it was 60 percent.

Arianne Eason, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology, and Stephanie Fryberg, a University of Michigan psychologist, launched the study last fall. Eason said: “We keep seeing clear examples of Native people speaking up and protesting these problematic team names and mascots. Yet, public opinion polls, with little methodological transparency, say that Native people are not offended. Things just don’t add up.”

“The data from previous opinion polls is often used to silence Native people,” said Fryberg, a member of the Tulalip Tribe in Washington state.

Eason and Fryberg’s study is estimated to be the largest scale investigation to date of the relationship between Native American identity and attitudes towards Native mascots.

“Ultimately, our study demonstrates that people who identify most with being Native American are the ones most likely to feel harmed by the continued use of stereotypical Native American team names and mascots,” Eason said. 

“This suggests that the debate over the continued use of Native mascots should be more closely attuned to Native American voices, particularly the voices of those who are most highly identified.”

This brings up a very important lesson for the movement, because another justification for keeping the name, even coming from so-called progressives, is that the name was sometimes used by Indigenous peoples themselves. So, we should disregard what Indigenous people are saying now about using the name for a sports team? 

As a Black person writing this article, I feel compelled to offer another scenario. Imagine a sports team using the N-word with the justification that some Black people also use that word?

You don’t build unity in our movement by denying the present and historic realities of racism that oppressed peoples are expressing opposition to.

Racist history of team name

A 2016 Washington Post article exposes the racist history of the 87-year-old team name, starting with the lyrics that then-owner George Marshall commissioned his wife to write in 1937, when the team moved to Washington. They are offensive and presented here to simply illustrate the racist beginnings that accompany that name:

“Hail to the  R*dsk*ns
Hail victory!
Braves on the warpath
Scalp ’um, swamp ’um — We will
Take ’um big score.
Read ’um, weep ’um, touchdown,
We want heap more.
Fight on, Fight on, ’til you have won,
Sons of Wash-ing-ton.
Rah! Rah! Rah!
Hail to the R*dsk*ns.
Hail victory!
Braves on the warpath
Fight for old D.C.”

It took 30 years for those lyrics to just be modified.

It’s ironic that the racist use of “scalping” in the song implies the use of merciless violence by Indigenous peoples. It was, in fact, one of the methods of merciless genocide against Indigenous peoples used by the colonizers, with scalping widely used to verify kills.

Mahtowin Munro of United American Indians of New England told Struggle-La Lucha: “White settlers for centuries routinely put bounties on the heads of Indigenous people, although plenty of them did this for fun and sport. Those who scalped Native people were paid different rates depending on whether the person scalped was a man, woman or child. 

“The scalps were often referred to as ‘red-skins,’” Munro explained. “This is why it is so despicable that the Washington team clung to that name for so long. We often call them the ‘Slurskins.’”

In 2015, Indian Country Today exposed a news story dated Oct. 9, 1885, that speaks to Munro’s points. 

The article reports: “The clip, published by the Atchison Daily Champion in Atchison, Kan., tells of settlers in Arizona fanning out across the state to ‘hunt for redskins, with a view of obtaining their scalps.’ Scalps taken from the bodies of dead Indians were valued at $250, according to the report.”

It’s not surprising then that, according to the aforementioned Washington Post article, Marshall, under pressure from the Kennedy White House, became the last owner to integrate his team in 1961. The team chose Ernie Davis, an African American Heisman Trophy recipient, in the NFL draft — but traded him just 10 days later.

This victory of the long-awaited name change was made possible by the relentless struggle waged by Indigenous activists, who met with team presidents, filed petitions and waged protests all across the U.S. 

Those voices were amplified by the recent demonstrations protesting the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, which screamed from the streets that the oppressed will no longer tolerate racism and will fight it by any means. 

All of this also exposes the power coming from the solidarity of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples fighting this system.