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.