In today’s fast-moving social-media world, public debate is waged by clickable meme. And it doesn’t have to be logical to be shareable.
Take the controversy over the Washington Redskins’ name. Critics who take offense at the name regularly condemn the word through an interesting exercise in guilt by association. They note the team’s founder, George Preston Marshall, personally was a notorious segregationist. Thus, they assert, the team’s name is racist.
Segregationist team owner = racist Redskins. QED.
It stands to reason, then, that a similar equation should be able to be applied to the case of the Cleveland Indians, to which the tide of the anti-mascot battle is already turning. Opponents of Native American-themed team mascots can’t abide the Indians’ grinning cartoon logo character, Chief Wahoo, described by critics as “Little Red Sambo.”
As it happens, Chief Wahoo was commissioned for the Indians’ sleeves in 1947 by then-team owner Bill Veeck. Veeck was a committed integrationist. He tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in the early ’40s so he could stock it with Negro League players, but was foiled when National League owners caught wind of his plan. He signed the first black player in the American League, Larry Doby, for the Indians not long after Jackie Robinson broke the color line, and later signed famous Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige.
Bill Veeck = big integrationist. Integrationist team owner = non-racist Chief Wahoo. Right?
The anti-mascot people don’t spin it that way.
Which shows how illogical the guilt-by-association tactic is that is being used against the Redskins’ team name.
If George Preston Marshall was a racist — and on the question of white-black social relations he certainly was — that has nothing to do with the meaning of the word “redskin,” which simply was a synonym for American Indian when the then-Boston Football Braves moved across town to Fenway Park in 1933 and chose a new tribal-sounding name that would echo that of their new baseball landlords the Red Sox.
The word “redskin” is an archaic expression for Indian that actually originated among the Indians themselves, and was introduced to wider usage in the 1800s when incorporated by James Fenimore Cooper in books such as Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer. It entered the language as another word for American Indian. The term was a neutral expression, not a pejorative.
If some critics today take offense at the word, that does not mean it was widely considered offensive in 1933 when it was chosen the team’s name, because it was not, as an entry from the old Century Dictionary indicates, and as a survey of newspapers in the early 20th century shows.
George Preston Marshall indeed was a segregationist. He notoriously quipped that he would add a black player to his team when the Harlem Globetrotters added a white player to theirs. He considered the Redskins the “team of the South” and struck an intransigent tone during the civil rights era by changing the final words of the team song to “Fight for Old Dixie.” When he finally did integrate the team it was only under pressure from the Kennedy Administration, which threatened to bar the team from playing in the new DC stadium on federal property.
As it happens, Marshall seems to have been quite fond of Native Americans: his original Redskins included four Indian players and an Indian coach; he delighted in his band in warbonnets playing “Hail to the Redskins,” and his game programs in the ’50s had respectful portraits of famous American Indian chiefs like Red Cloud and Quanah Parker on their covers. If Marshall was a segregationist with regard to African-Americans, he seemed to quite admire Native Americans. Certainly, he didn’t name his team after them with the intent of denigrating them.
In any event, Marshall’s social and political views on blacks and whites had nothing — and have nothing — to do with the definition and widespread popular usage of a given word for Native Americans. The fact that, in years since, the Redskins have been able to claim the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, among numerous other black stars, including current quarterback Robert Griffin III, would also seem to mitigate what anti-black tarnish if any remains on the name of the team founded by the bigoted Mr. Marshall.
But back to the math. If Segregationist Team Owner = Racist Word, then shouldn’t it follow that, in the case of the Cleveland baseball team, Integrationist Owner = Non-Racist Symbol?
How is it that the message that will be presented is that the Indians’ symbol, too, is racist?
This doesn’t add up. If a team owner’s political and social views determine the acceptability — or ban-worthiness — of a word or symbol, then shouldn’t the cartoon symbol commissioned by Bill Veeck — whose record on integration was praiseworthy — be considered praiseworthy?
Nonetheless, Chief Wahoo is offensive, critics will say, even if an estimable integrationist came up with him.
So isn’t it possible that George Preston Marshall’s personally racist views on matters of black-white relations had no direct correlation to the popular meaning of a word for American Indians?
Isn’t it possible that people’s actions and motivations, and the historic usage and meanings of words and symbols, are a bit more complex than the punchy formulations of snarky memes on the internet would suggest?
(Image: George Preston Marshall outside the Redskins’ office, circa 1940. Library of Congress)