Cleveland Indians Name Change: Important Social Achievement or Another Useless Action?

Pandering to the loudest voices makes change, but it’s the easy kind. Where’s the real heavy lifting?

We live in a time when we respond to school shootings with a call to attack the ability of a hunter to buy a new rifle instead of pouring money into mental healthcare. Why? It’s easier and cheaper and it makes us look like we did something. In a time when racists are taking to social media in increasingly brazen attacks on minorities, we respond with identifications of areas as “safe spaces” and attack political representatives from those areas. Why? It’s easy and cheaper than going to poor white communities where this kind of vile is born and investing money in their schooling. In a time when protestors are demanding more accountability from their police and anarchists are destroying city blocks we respond with the re-naming of a professional sports franchise. Why? It’s easy and cheaper than pouring money into inner-city school districts with new schools and more teachers or calling out groups like Antifa for what they are and demanding justice. That’s hard. And for many television news crews, scary.

So we find the easy thing to do. We look at how something might make someone feel. Feelings are injustices on the very outskirts of where real issues live. Again, it’s easy to soothe someone’s feelings, say by renaming something. It’s an easy fix and one of many fairly useless things on the list of possible actions to be taken by our politicians in order for them to be able to come to you and say, “See? We now call this thing a different name. Isn’t that great? How about a campaign contribution?”

We are in a significant period of American history. Currently, if it is possible something might offend someone, then we should eliminate it, regardless of the fact that the offensive thing might bring someone else joy or a feeling of connection to society. Someone, somewhere right now is offended because the name “Giants” diminishes the stature of little people or “Cowboys” is gender specific. Atheists are muttering to themselves over the “Saints.” Pear bodies and the tiny-biceped are smoldering at the term “Athletics.” Think of how they must feel?

We would hope that those absurd examples aren’t true, but with more than 330 million citizens of the United States in existence, it’s likely that they are true. Basically, if you are looking to be offended you can and will be offended. And in this era of white guilt, there are attempts to make reparations for actions that today’s caucasian population had nothing to do with. And so, the Cleveland Indians are now on their way to becoming the Cleveland Baseball Team, following in the steps of the Washington Redskins and the St. John’s Redmen.

What strikes me is the origin of the terms Indians and Redskins and Red Men and how the names have been painted with some kind of shame by the occasional “activist” and tribes like the Oneida of New York state to whom the names were not ascribed. According to historical texts, the Beothuk tribe in the Newfoundland area of Canada referred to themselves as red men and painted themselves red in keeping with their traditions. Sports teams took up the names as a point of honor to show the willingness to be brave (racist?) and courageous with a warrior’s (racist?) spirit when going into “battle” with other teams or schools. Have racist whites and blacks used terms disparagingly to describe the overall population? Absolutely? But have millions of white, black, and brown sports fans come to appreciate and honor native Americans in part because of an allegiance to the local teams, the Chiefs, the Braves, the Warriors, the Indians and the Redskins? Hell yes, they have. In Spokane, the minor league Indians are remaining because of support from the community. They’re not alone. I have a neighbor who is black and native American and loves the Chiefs in part because they celebrate his heritage. Some native American kids from where I grew up proudly wore Redskins jackets… as well as those from the Eagles, Cowboys, Rams and 49ers. Most native American kids with Illini, Iroquois, Chippewa, Delaware, Erie, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Kaskaskia, Miami, Wyandot and Shawnee heritage loved the Redskins and the Indians because there was something named for them… something big and that told them they weren’t alone. Don’t believe me? A 2016 Washington Post poll found roughly 90 percent of native Americans were not offended by the Redskins name which is supposedly the worst nickname in the book. A different study found the number closer to 70 percent with half of those being “proud” of the name. So if 90 percent are fine with “Redskins,” and it’s the worst, how many are fine with “Indians?”

Of course, the whole naming thing is based on a Christopher Columbus’ screw-up in misidentifying a race of people which caused them to be incorrectly termed for 500 years. It makes me wonder if Columbus had ever actually met a person from India as people from that country typically bares zero resemblance to native Americans. No matter, at some point, we came to accept them as Indians and even went so far to reclassify people from the country of India as “East Indians.” Mistakes happen. And as we adopted the Indians as the name of the people we were invading and whose land we were taking, no one got hurt because of the word. They got hurt because they defended their land as European settlers did what their ancestors had done: invaded, warred, conquered, established new communities.

So what happens when we lose the Indians as the name of the Major League Baseball team in Cleveland? Nothing good, particularly. We lose an opportunity to remind these current generations that American Indians are a culture to be celebrated and honored. What exactly does doing away with the name get us? And what’s next? Are we going to do away with the Vikings next? They’re a general race of people, I guess? Is the name insulting? How about the Hawks? Can we pretend they were named after birds and just gloss over that? The Celtics? That’s okay because they’re white? The Blackhawks? Too native American? The Chiefs? Same? What if we call the Cleveland Baseball Team the Cleveland Native Americans? Why did you say, “Ohhhh nooooo?” If that’s not okay, why? Is that somehow racist too?

Calling things, people and actions “racist” when they aren’t is not only unproductive, but harmful. Every baseless use of the word as defined by Webster’s weakens it and numbs people to actions that actually are either “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” or that are are part of “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”

These attacks are akin to the “Red Scare” in the 1950s. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy ruined countless lives with false allegations and insinuations of communism as people scrambled to prove they weren’t communists just because they were liberal. Sound familiar? It should. People now are scrambling to prove they aren’t racist because some extremists are claiming you have to be “actively anti-racist” in order not to be lumped in with the likes of the Ku Klux Klan or some other group of knuckleheads.

To avoid even the appearance of racism, apologetic whites are now tripping all over themselves to show they are “woke,” by stealing terms coined in black America, and ironically identifying themselves as people in power –white, middle-class, straight, privileged, and previously unaware of anything anywhere. “We didn’t know” they cry over their almond milk latte’s and vegan burgers. But while identifying themselves, they also remind everyone of their white privilege while not really doing anything to limit it, like expanding internship programs or not judging people by the color of their skin. While the ringing tenor of superiority lingers about their non-apology apology, they claim to be born again and are eager to tell everyone else how and what to think. That’s easy. Actually doing something to help all people of all colors in their community? Nope. Too hard.

Reading this you might be saying, “You and your white fragility…” Wrong. I have none. I have common sense. I have a moral code that says treat people fairly and make the world a better place. I didn’t just wake up to a world full of inequities. I spent 25 years covering it and reporting on it. And why do you assume I’m white? “What if I’m not white? What if I’m native American? What if I’m part? What if my heritage includes people south of the border? North? What if I’m black? Asian? Swedish? Does it make a difference? The answer is, it shouldn’t. But it does to people who are looking to separate us by color and race because that’s the easy thing to do. We are finally arriving at a time when we judge people on their merits and their actions. We should try to maintain that momentum, not backtrack into a war of races. In a truly non-racist society, my opinion is worth exactly as much regardless of whether I am Hispanic, Asian, Indian, African, or caucasian from any country.

This new name move and others like it are simply pandering to the loudest voices. What gets lost in all of this… again… is the difficult thing that could be done to make our world better. We have been screwing over kids of all colors in impoverished neighborhoods forever. Read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and then read Bloomberg’s update 25 years later. They don’t get equal funding, they don’t have equal facilities, they don’t have equal education. Neither do poor white kids in poor rural towns. But instead of focusing on issues like that and looking at how to make charter schools part of the solution, we kowtow to the unions and bemoan testing systems that tell us exactly how screwed up the current system is. Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University conducted a study that found 86 percent of the achievement gap between blacks and whites was eliminated when black kids went to charter schools from K-8. Tell that to your union honk assembly member and see what they have to say to that. They’ve so far said teacher salaries are the key to closing the gap. The test results say otherwise. But it’s easier to pay teachers more than it is to develop curriculum and community buy-in in districts that currently have neither.

In that vein, we change names of sports teams and parks. We hold staff meetings to identify the plight of minority employees and then tell white employees to refrain from responding to attacks. We say what we think people want to hear. And then we do nothing of real importance. So, before you celebrate the un-naming of the Indians, ask yourself, “What do we really get out of that?”

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