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Sterling's Comments, Snyder's Condescension: Two Sides of Same Coin

Jacqueline Keeler examines Donald Sterling's lifetime ban and the continued tolerance of Dan Snyder's NFL team's name, the Washington Redskins.

When comparing the differences in response to the NBA’s banning of racist L.A. Clippers owner Don Sterling to NFL Commissioner Goodell’s support of Washington Redsk*ns owner Dan Snyder, we must look at the ways in which racist stereotyping of Native people is seen as more acceptable than that of African Americans and other ethnic groups in the United States. We also must look at why Black players and sponsors do not take racism against Native people as seriously as racism against other Americans. We must ask, Why is it okay for Dan Snyder to talk down to Native concerns about using a racial slur as the name of his team and for our fellow Americans of color to ignore us?

When Snyder says, “WE’LL NEVER CHANGE THE NAME. It’s that simple. Never—you can use caps,” and Sterling says “We live in a culture, we have to live within that culture. I DON’T WANT TO CHANGE,” we are looking at two sides of the same coin. It is in direct contrast to President Obama’s refrain from his 2008 election night acceptance speech, “Change is coming to America.” An America built on the invention of the very concept of “race” to uphold the dual practices of slavery and land theft that lies at the very foundation of this colonial-settler country that is now threatened by a Black President, Black athletic excellence and success and Native people asserting control over their representations in the media and in sports.

Different teams, similar words, same message. Graphic created by Michael Woestehoff.

Cliven Bundy wondered in a taped interview if Black people “were better off as slaves” and accused them of being welfare freeloaders -- Cliven Bundy, a white man who has been grazing for free for 20 years on land half the size of Rhode Island and owes the U.S one million dollars in fees and fines. You can see how little many in the United States have moved on from the Civil War, the rupture that was the first real attack on the slavery/land theft complex that birthed this country.

I thought a lot about the differences in American perspectives—particularly those of Black Americans, like the Washington Redsk*ns player DeAngelo Hall, who said earlier this year in an interview with Mike Hill of Fox Sports, “They probably should [change the name], but they won’t for awhile at least.” He then backtracked on this rather tepid support of Native American concerns after ostensibly receiving pressure from Snyder, saying, “I can’t claim to understand where they’re coming from or their viewpoint, so for me to say what’s right or wrong or what should be changed is out of my pay grade. That decision ultimately -- you know me, all teammates and I have stayed away from this topic. It’s one where you really can’t be right.”

In Asiance Magazine Eugene Hung writes, “So to Robert Griffin III, DeSean Jackson, Santana Moss, DeAngelo Hall, and the other members of the R*dskins football club: Like the white players on the Los Angeles Clippers, and like soccer players the world over, you have the amazing opportunity to powerfully demonstrate your solidarity with oppressed people! Will you please stand with Native American peoples and push, both publicly and privately within the organization, for a new team name? For those of you on the team who are men of color I ask, is it not enough that native peoples have suffered genocide and ethnic cleansing at the hand of our government? Must they continue, Sunday after Sunday, in broadcast after broadcast, to hear a racist term that belittles them? Can you empathize, having experienced discrimination in your own lives?”

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In Custer Died for Your Sins, Vine Deloria, Jr. notes, that “rather than race or minority grouping, non-whites have often been defined according to their function within the American society” (171). In the evil system set up by the colonists and inherited by the United Staes, our position, as Natives, was that of the wild animals, and that of blacks was of working animals. These different roles are still reflected in the discrimination both of our groups (black and Native) face today. Most African Americans still occupy an explicitly lower-class status and are denied access to policy-making, economic, and social hierarchies. Even talented and respected celebrities like Magic Johnson (whose presence in a photo with Sterling's girlfriend sparked his comments) are not immune to such limitations.

Sir John Harvey, Crown Governor of Virginia (1628-1637) used the concept of our people as “wild” to guide the policy that the U.S.would as the basis of taking our lands: “Some affirm, and it is likely to be true, that these savages have no particular propriety in any part or parcel of that country, but only a general residency there, as wild beasts in the forest," he wrote. "For they range and wander up and down the country without any law or government, being led only by their own lusts and sensuality. There is not meum and tuum [mine and thine] amongst them. So that if the whole land should be taken from them, there is not a man that can complain of any particular wrong done unto him.”

The fact that the stereotype promoted by Native mascots—that we are "wild" and "brave"—has been used to take our lands, and continue to be used to such effect, cannot be overlooked. The ugly racial stereotypes about black Americans that are the relic of slavery are of a different order, because the role assigned black people in this evil system of exploitation was different. But they are close cousins in the continued effort to keep a social order that we all know is wrong and we all, no matter what our background, should fight.

Obama said, that night in 2008, when he became the first Black President of the United States, “From the very beginning, you knew that this journey wasn’t about me or any of the other candidates in this race. It’s about whether this country -- at this defining moment -- will continue down the same road that has failed us for so long, or whether we will seize this opportunity to take a different path -- to forge a different future for the country we love.”

After the NBA decision was announced, Hall-of-Famer and former Los Angeles Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, "It’s going to be a new day here in this city, and a whole lot of Clipper fans are going to have a whole lot more to smile about.”

Well, I ask the NFL to give Native Americans something to smile about, and demand the Washington football team change their name.

Jacqueline Keeler is a Twitter activist (@jfkeeler) and one of the founders of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry.