Redskins, the State, and the Right to Be Racist

As happens about once every decade, the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins football team’s name has sprouted up again and everyone has their two cents to give. Following the U.S. Patent Office’s decision to cancel the football organization’s six trademarks, the pontificating from the libertarian community has been predictably lacking in nuance and woefully ignorant. Some of the oh-so-insightful responses range from claiming that the government has assaulted freedom of speech to denying entirely that the word ‘redskin’ is disparaging or a racial slur. Perhaps still hungover from their days as Tea Partiers, far too many libertarians have an immediate and automated reaction to resist anything they see as an attempt at political correctness.

Before going on, let us be clear on the proper and only libertarian position on the matter: It is illegitimate for either the State or any private individual to use aggressive force to prevent an organization from using any word to identify itself, no matter how offensive the word may be. This is the entirety of what libertarianism as an ideology has to say about the Washington Redskins’ name.

And so far, the State has not used violent force to prevent the Washington football team from calling themselves the Redskins; they have only refused to enforce the organization’s monopoly on the use of the name, even if only as an attempt on the part of elected officials to earn a few brownie points with voters. This is in no way a limitation of free speech. If anything, libertarians should be considering this an infinitesimally small victory against intellectual property as there are now six less trademarks (actual limitations on free speech) to be enforced. Senator Harry Reid stated on the Senate floor that the team will be forced to change their name, but until that happens, there is no reason for libertarians to link arms with the Washington Redskins.

It is also worth noting that the Washington Redskins, the third-richest sports team in the world behind only the Dallas Cowboys and Manchester United, collect quite a few dollars in subsidies and favors from multiple levels of government. The taxpayers of the state of Virginia, Loudon County, and the city of Richmond had to cough up nearly $7 million in 2012 to encourage the team to move their training camp into the area. When the team’s current home, FedExField, the largest stadium in the National Football League, was built in 1996, the state of Maryland and Prince George’s County taxpayers shelled out a handsome $70.5 million for infrastructure to accommodate for the stadium. Surely private individuals ought to have the right to free speech, but the team’s racism is State-funded.

As mentioned above, the libertarian ideology, being exclusively a political ethic, opines only on the use of violent force and makes no statement whether ‘Redskins’ is an appropriate or acceptable name for a professional sports team. It is curious, then, that, in the process of defending the right of the organization to call themselves ‘Redskins,’ many end up defending the act itself. Perhaps it is a result of attempting to reconcile and maintain consistency with political and personal beliefs, but libertarians should be aware—and many likely are, which makes this even more frustrating—that there is nothing inconsistent with finding the team’s name distasteful and abhorrent while also defending their legal right to do so, just as one can fight for the legalization of illicit drugs without advocating their use.

Perhaps the problem, then, is that many of the individuals in libertarian circles truly do not see anything offensive about the word ‘redskin.’ And that is my main purpose in writing this post: I want libertarians, a group often (and not without reason) stereotyped as being only straight white males, to understand why ‘redskin’ is a racist pejorative and to give a sober view of why suggesting that Native Americans just “get over it” since it is “just a word” is ignorant of the complexities of racism in language and society.

When I was young and growing up in rural but fairly integrated Southern Maryland—yes, Redskins Country—I would wonder why there were no “good” racial slurs for White people. Sure, there were ‘cracker’ and ‘honkey,’ but they did not have nearly the same bite as ‘nigger’ or ‘spic’ or ‘gook.’ I used to think that this dearth of effective racial slurs for Whites was due to some lack of creativity on the part of nonwhite groups, but it seems clear now that there is virtually no word that could be invented that could truly offend and affect me or other people traditionally understood as White in the same way that racial epithets effect minority groups.

Racial slurs are not born in a vacuum; they arise in a context, most often in a context of oppression (not in the loose definition of oppression, but physical and political domination.) These words function as a chagrining reminder to people of the institutionalized oppression which they endure every day of their lives. Whether these words cause psychological damage or offense is dependent upon whether or not they are used to address a persecuted person or group. Surely much more psychic harm is done when the White slavemaster cracks his whip against the Black slave’s back and calls him a nigger than when the slave calls the master a cracker under his breath. Even after the institutional oppression is altered, or perhaps even abolished, these words retain their meanings and their potency.

As someone who has never been systematically oppressed to any significant extent as a result of his race, gender, sex, or sexuality, it can be difficult to properly appreciate the effect that these words can have on someone. It can be difficult for people of similar backgrounds to mine—and this makes up a large portion of libertarians, I am sure—to imagine how anyone could be truly offended by words if they themselves have never felt a seething anger as a result of a pejorative of their race, gender, or sexuality being used to describe them.

It is vital that we attempt to understand racism from more than just our own perspective. To use the parlance of our time, we should all check our privilege. And I absolutely do not mean by that phrase that all white, male, heterosexual or cisgendered people should shut up and butt out of the discussion. Rather, I mean that everyone ought to take the time to understand why people may be hurt by “just words” in addition to sticks and stones so that one can make a more informed decision about what behavior he finds acceptable.

Now one must ask, is ‘redskin’ a racial slur and a pejorative? As an NPR article from last year elucidates comprehensively, there is some dispute over the origin of the word, but it is widely accepted that the word began to take on negative connotations at the turn of the twentieth century, when most media portrayed Native Americans as the all-too-familiar primitive, bellicose, savage caricature. This is true of many words commonly accepted as pejoratives. The word ‘kaffir’ is agreed upon as an offensive term for blacks in South Africa, despite it previously being seen as a neutral term, and despite its origin from the Arabic word for an infidel. Even the word ‘nigger’ was originally a neutral variation on the Spanish and Portuguese word for black, but it would be a hard case to argue that calling someone a ‘nigger’ in the twenty-first century is entirely benign.

During the media day prior to this year’s Super Bowl, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked whether he would “feel comfortable calling an American Indian a Redskin to his or her face” From his choosing not to address the question, we can only assume that the answer was a reluctant ‘no,’ just as he would likely decline to call any of the NFL’s many black players a nigger to his face. I imagine the same is true for many who defend the Washington Redskins’ team name as well, suggesting that they understand, at least to some degree, that the word is offensive.

The libertarian position on this recurring controversy is unequivocal: The libertarian qua libertarian makes no judgement so long as no force is involved. But because libertarians must necessarily be individuals and not simply embodiments of the nonaggression principle that do not exist in the physical world, if the libertarian individual is opposed to the collectivist cancer that is racism, he must make himself aware of the effect the word ‘redskin’ has on those it is meant to describe and he must encourage the Washington Redskins football team to find a new moniker.

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4 comments

  1. Andrew · · Reply

    You bring up some interesting points. I think many libertarians are divided on the issue of intellectual property rights. On one side, patents and trademarks infringe on a person’s right to free speech. On the other hand, many libertarians believe in a man’s right to the products of his mind, and therefore patent and copyright laws should protect that.

    Words often change meaning over time. Think about the original use of the term “redskin”. Native Americans used it simply as a way to differentiate Native Americans from whites. It was not thought of as a derogatory term at all. No different from how we describe people as white or black today. Over time, the word began to take on a different meaning. When the Washington football team was established, I think it once again took on a new meaning. When teams chose a name for themselves, they typically pick something that fans can rally around and take pride in. In my opinion, the “Washington Redskins” is more of an honor than a slur.

    You also say that there are no racial slurs for white people that equate to those of other groups. You said that racial slurs arise in a context of oppression, You indicate the n word carries more hate than “cracker” because of how each was used. However, think about the origin of the term “cracker”. it was a term originally given to poor white cattle ranchers in the deep south. I would argue that this word could be considered a racial slur because it arose from context. However, I don’t think many white people take offense to it simply because they don’t understand the history behind it.

    At the end of the day, words only take on the power that we give them.

  2. Marv · · Reply

    No “good” racial slurs for White people? How about ‘racist’? Not only racial, but the vast majority of the time directed at whites. Very hurtful, not only psychologically but oftentimes socially and financially, in some cases a virtual career death sentence. That is apart from slurs addressed to Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles, Hungarians and on an on, some of whom are whiter than Anglos. And don’t forget that the N-word has become a universal helper, including “red n…”.

    Redskin is not a racist term; if simply being used–along with Indian etc.– in a movie where Native Americans/Indians are portrayed in an unflattering way (NPR’s ‘evidence’) makes a term racist, then Jew is certainly a racist term, because I have seen Nazi propaganda using that term where Jews were explicitly compared to sewer rats. If redskin by itself packed such a wallop, blackskin, brownskin, yellowskin would be common epithets, hurled by racists everywhere. The fact is they are not–the target of one of these would probably just laugh at their lameness. Thus the need for the n-word in all its variations and combinations. The redskins were an historical, and very interesting people, tragic heroes really, fighting for a doomed cause–just as portrayed in JF Cooper’s books (albeit in a different area of the country) ; to me, the roundabout arrival of the Redskin name in the nation’s capitol shows the hand of fate at work; it’s disappearance would represent the final defeat of those stubborn rebels. Well, temporary final anyway…

    1. The blows that are dealt by slurs for Italians, Irish and Poles have been deadened by the fact that these groups have since been included into society’s conception of Whiteness. Regardless of their complexion, the Irish weren’t considered White before, but now they are, and they now benefit from being “White.” And you’re right, there’s an argument to make that ‘Jew’ was, at least for a time, a slur as well.

      I’m curious, how do explain offense taken to the term ‘redskin’ by Native Americans? Are they just pretending?

  3. 1american1st · · Reply

    What a scam! As the Communist Democrat Hairy Reid tries to divert attention & cover up his participation in the attempt to sell thousands of acres of public land in Nevada to a Chinese company, which was represented by his son, he originally found 4 American Indians whom he convinced to be “offended” by the word “Redskins”. He has since convinced more.

    This scam does 2 things:

    1. It takes pressure off of Hairy (who should be in jail) for his Chinese involvement.

    2. It will erase another segment of American Indian history. It’s just like the Confederate flag, another piece of history removed by the Communist Democrats. They will keep going until they have erased all history & memory of the American Indians.

    Just like Hitler & the book burnings, removed anything & everything he didn’t like or didn’t fit with the Nazi agenda.

    I hope the American Indians will wake up & see the Communist Democrat agenda is to remove all trace of them. This is just the beginning of their evil agenda.

    Did I mention that I am of Cherokee heritage & the only thing that offends me & my family is Hairy Reid & the Communist Democrat Party. The same party that celebrates men having sex with men by making homosexual marriage legal, lights up our White House like a Gay Bar, celebrates black criminals, hates & condemns our police & thinks man can control our climate.

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