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California anti-mascot bill clears first hurdle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. ? A state bill which would prohibit California schools from using racially derogatory names for school teams and mascots took its first step toward passage April 2.

By a 6 - 0 vote, the Higher Education Committee of the California State Assembly stamped its approval on AB 2115, the California Racial Mascots Bill. The bill will now move on to the Assembly Education Committee, which handles legislation pertinent to K-12 schools.

AB 2115 is sponsored by Alliance Against Racial Mascots (ALLARML. It was introduced by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles.

To avoid vagueness, or an overly broad definition of "racially derogatory", the bill focused on a handful of specific names, with language that establishes a process for future evaluation of potentially offensive names.

Specifically, according to the Assembly analysis of the bill, AB 2115 "prohibits public schools, community colleges, the California State University (CSU), and the University of California (UC), from using any school or athletic team name, mascot, or nickname that is derogatory or discriminatory against any race, ethnicity, nationality or tribal group, including Redskins, Braves, Chiefs, Apaches, Comanches, or any other American Indian tribal name."

Goldberg testified before the Committee that as a society "without malice or evil intent ? we have ignored the cries ? the pleas ? of an important part of the family of people who live in California ? which many members of their community find disheartening and discriminatory."

During the hearing, Goldberg cited a report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights that she said "found there were actual negative consequences for self-esteem, for self-respect of members of the Native American community."

Registered support for AB 2115 lists 49 organizations, including the Southern California Indian Center, The National Indian Education Association, and several tribal councils and tribal organizations.

The registered list of opponents for the bill consisted of one name, the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. No one from that organization testified at the hearing.

AB 2115 is not likely to be entertained in either the Assembly or Senate without controversy. While the risk of appearing racist may make it unlikely that legislators will express opposition to the intent of the bill, opponents may attack it from a fiscal perspective: how much will it cost for all the offending institutions to change the logos on school uniforms, signage, and stationery? The bill's authors feel that they have mitigated that challenge by inserting language that would allow schools that are affected by this bill to phase in their new mascots and logos as a natural part of the process of upgrading school uniforms.

Moving testimony was offered by John Lewis Orendorff, Jr., who identified himself as a college counselor in California, a "proud elementary, junior high school, high school, community college, and UC graduate" and an American Indian father. He described an incident in which he took his seven-year-old son to a high school football game, at which one of the teams was named after a tribe. "A banner was unfurled, and my son pointed it out to me. It said 'Slaughter the Indians.'" When Lewis complained to the school administrator, he was ignored, and soon thereafter two policemen appeared and were standing on either side of the sign. His son asked him "Are the policemen guarding the sign?" He told his son, no, that it was just a coincidence.

"What I'm asking you," he said, "is if it said 'Slaughter the African-Americans', or 'Slaughter the Jews', would a school allow that to happen? This is real."

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Lewis testified that as a former director of the American Education Commission in Los Angeles, he tried to deal with the mascot issue at a local level, but that he found it "very difficult without leadership from the state."

When a member of the committee expressed confusion over why a name like "Apache" would be offensive, Amber Machamer, Ph.D., member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation and a key member of ALLARM, pointed out "if you want to honor someone, you name a school after them. You don't call your team the African-Americans ? you name the school after Dr. Martin Luther King."

The mascot issue has received national attention in recent days. An intramural basketball team at the University of Northern Colorado, upset that a nearby high school team was named the "Fightin' Reds", changed its name to the "Fightin' Whites", and adopted a kitschy, '50s era logo of a smiling white man ? a Ward Cleaver-esque cartoon image.

The next test for AB 2115, before the Assembly Education Committee, is scheduled for April 24. According to Goldberg, if it survives that committee it will be sent to the Assembly floor in early May, "where it must receive at 41 votes to pass."

From there the bill would have to survive the State Senate in July or August, at which time it would be forwarded to Governor Gray Davis for signature. At this time no one from ALLARM has heard Gov. Davis express an opinion on the bill.

Representatives of California Indian groups attended the hearing. Paula Starr, the executive director of the Southern California Indian Center, stressed that this was "truly a grass roots effort ? there is no big money behind it." In her testimony, Starr cited a Sports Illustrated poll that showed 81 percent of Native Americans did not care about the mascot issue. "We have a newspaper called Indian Country Today, which goes to Indian people all across the country, and that poll showed that over 80 percent of Native American people oppose mascots." The poll was actualy an "unscientific email survey of "Opinion Leader."

Eugene Herrod, an enrolled member of the Muskogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, successfully argued to the California Department of Motor Vehicles that they should ban the use of the term "redskin" on personalized license plates. At the hearing, he mentioned, "in Webster's Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, (and) the Oxford English Dictionary, the term 'redskin' is defined as a racial slur." According to Herrod, in the 1600s the British Crown put a bounty on American Indians, and the bloody underscalp was called a "redskin." In the 1800s it became a commonly used pejorative.

The committee appeared interested in whether or not other groups would receive protection under AB 2115. In Southern California there are team names such as "the Dons" which refer to a Spanish colonial period that was not kind to either Native Americans or Latinos. Lori Nelson, producer of the one-act, anti-racist play "Kick" (starring Delana Studi, the niece of Wes Studi), a member of ALLARM, and program director for the National Conference for Community and Justice, pointed out that the bill was endorsed by non-Indian minority organizations.

The bill also includes a section that mandates the creation of a list of names by the State Board of Education and the California Postsecondary Education Commission that are deemed unacceptable. These two bodies would hold the authority to grant exceptions if a school or campus can provide sufficient evidence that a name is not derogatory or discriminatory, although no exceptions will be granted for those names previously stated.

Nelson mentioned after the hearing that at this point she was "unable to identify any serious organized opposition" to the bill. That may change soon.

In an article published by the Sacramento Bee, California Assemblyman Richard "Dick" Anderson, R-Redding, suggested that the legislature doesn't need to be "monkeying" into every aspect of life.

Should Indians not be proud that a school selects 'Warrior' as its mascot? There is nothing demeaning about that ? except to ultraliberals."

The term "warrior" is not listed as one of the names to be banned.