The Recycled Hatreds of ‘Racism, Inc.’

Racism, Inc.” identifies an extortionate industry that has particularly prosperous franchises on college campuses. It uses intimidation and violence to twist the raw materials of a serious problem with a long history into an exquisite tool for chiseling power and profit from the weak, ignorant, and credulous—including those who occupy the boardrooms of companies like Nike, PepsiCo, FedEx, and Procter & Gamble.

Daniel Snyder, majority owner of the Washington Redskins, has (or had) a backbone stiffer than most and fought a pitched battle for years against the organized activists who demanded that he change the name of his professional football team. But when minority owners and major corporate sponsors put the thumbscrews to him recently, he finally capitulated. The trademarked name emblazoned on the franchise since “Slingin” Sammy Baugh was throwing touchdown passes in the late 1930s, will now be “retired.”

Give credit to the stick-to-itiveness of Racism, Inc. and their ability to bring this country’s managerial elite to heel regardless of the truth. If one year the assembly line should turn out an Edsel, never fear for its ending on the scrap-heap. In these corporate-subsidized manufactories of progressive hate, first-time losers never get junked, only shelved to await a more propitious environment for recycled sale. 

Thus, 11 years after the United States Supreme Court gave Snyder a victory in the case Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo by accepting a lower court decision favorable to him, the national atmosphere charged by BLM and Antifa rioting opened the door to a renewed campaign against a name that activists and a formidable group of blue-suited allies call an execrable expression of racial bigotry.

Although Snyder triumphed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the decision rested largely on the legal doctrine of laches, which involves the timing of a claimant in pursuing redress in a case of equity.

But the Court also explained that “substantial evidence” was lacking to demonstrate that the word “redskins” possessed the pejorative connotations that the activists have always claimed. Suzan Shown Harjo, “a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee” and one of the seven defendants in the Harjo case, led the charge in bringing her side of the story to college campuses and other venues. Unlike the infamous rent-a-radical Ward Churchill, Harjo has a legitimate genealogy to claim indigenous status, and to her credit, she had tried to inform the academy that Churchill was a phony long before the academy caught on, assuming it ever has.

Is “Redskin” an Epithet?

“Most Native Americans despise the term Redskins,” Harjo maintained, “and say that it is the worst epithet hurled at Native Peoples in the English language.” “Redskins,” she insisted, referred to “the days of Indian bounty hunting in the 1600s and 1700s.” when the practice prevailed “of paying bounties for the bloody red skins and scalps as evidence of Indian kill.” Supporters in the academy have echoed this assertion, although when their footnotes are examined, most of them have performed little if any serious research on their own and, as was the case with one professor of political science and philosophy, merely assert that “this fact has been recognized by certain governing bodies [sic!].”

But other facts run counter to the activists’ narrative. First, Harjo and others like her hardly speak for all persons in this country of indigenous ancestry. Polling data from when the case started in 2005 to date fail to support Harjo’s first point. In truth, a higher proportion of whites than “Native-Americans”— in neither case a majority—find the word “redskins” offensive. 

Moreover, not a shred of documented historical evidence has surfaced to support Harjo’s more incendiary second point. As expert witness Ives Goddard, a prominent linguistic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, pointed out years ago, “Harjo has made a living of making assertions on a variety of controversial terms without providing any evidence for them.” In truth, the use of “red” in describing descendants of Pre-Columbian peoples has a historical trajectory that in no way matches that of “black” in describing Africans and persons of African descent. 

Every word has its own discrete history. Undue present-mindedness, it appears, has led Harjo, her supporters, and now the titans of big business to read into “redskin” an ugly equivalence, unsubstantiated by historical scholarship, to words like “kike” and “spic.” 

For more than a century after colonizing the North American mainland colonies, English settlers, when describing their interactions with indigenous peoples, applied the terms “white” or “tawny” to them. No one, to the best of any professional historian’s knowledge, has found the use of the word “redskin” to describe an “Indian” before the early decades of the 18th century. White Americans under the influence of French rationalism became more tri-color coded in broadly speaking of “races” only during the late eighteenth-century. 

In fact, no less than Thomas Jefferson in the first edition of Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), in a section of the book that challenged the wisdom of the French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in his characterization of the New World’s flora and fauna, emerged as one of the first prominent persons in the United States to speak of “man, white, red, and black,” The application by warriors of red paint to their bodies prior to waging war undoubtedly helped at some point to cement, in the minds of whites, the association of red with Indian. Thus, for many whites, (though, to be sure, not all) “redskin” came to connote ferocity, bravery, and daring, attributes that one might easily want to associate with a football team.

“Redskin” came into increasing use during the first decades of the 19th-century because a wide variety of indigenous ethnicities with whom whites were having increasing contact used it themselves in self-referential contrast to the pale-skinned with whom they were doing business. In dealing with indigenous peoples west of the Appalachians, English speakers took instruction from French speakers who had a much longer history of contact with chiefdoms there. French Jesuits and others learned indigenous languages and repeatedly recorded the French term “Peaux-Rouge” as an expression not invented by racist whites, but translated by sympathetic interpreters who were taking a tribal identification that had, as an anthropologist might say, emic value. 

“The first appearances of redskin in English, writes Goddard, are . . . as literal translations of what would be in standard French Peau-Rouge.” On the one hand, words like “African” or “Indian” have conventional meanings understood by outsiders who impose them on others; on the other hand, words like “redskin” renders idioms generated by insiders into language understandable to outsiders looking in.

Take, for example, the story “Proclamation to the Red Skins,” reported in an 1825 issue of the Edwardsville (Illinois) Spectator. A scribe and interpreter took down verbatim the words of Quashquame, chief of the Sauks, who spoke of moving his people to Missouri and building there a city to house the sachem of the “Red Skin nation.” More than a decade earlier, President James Madison entertained the leaders of multiple western tribes so that he could bribe them into staying away from the English at the beginning of the War of 1812. Records show that various chiefs, in accepting Madison’s pile of gifts, called themselves “redskins.” 

The publication that may have had the greatest impact in spreading usage among antebellum whites was James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel Pioneers, the first of his five Leatherstocking Tales. Cooper deployed the word a handful of times but never in a pejorative way. In fact, the first appearance of the word in the book speaks of a partially clad male “red-skin” as “comely” as “ye ever set eyes on.”

Scholarship and Truth Don’t Matter

Until now, Daniel Snyder had countered his critics in court and elsewhere with serious scholars as witnesses on the history of the word. But like so many other cases with principles vital to the maintenance of a free society at stake, the pursuit of truth failed to decide the matter. 

Following previous court decisions favorable to Snyder, the anti-Redskin movement never died but gained allies and built up momentum, waiting for the right moment to strike again with added force. Casino magnate Ray Halbritter, the powerful leader of the Oneidas, enlisted in the cause. College students also picked up the chant while bashing Christopher Columbus. Prominent clergy came out in support of an immediate name change. Commentators like Washington Post opinion writer Eugene Robinson weighed in, declaring that “redskins” is a “racial slur,” that must be jettisoned from the football brand and dare not be uttered in public. Barack Obama when president chimed in that the time has come to “think about changing” the name. (How about to Washington Regulators or Washington Leviathans?)

The prominent cultural critic Christopher Lasch, in a remarkably prescient book titled Revolt of the Elites, published posthumously in 1995, warned Middle America that “those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus sets the terms of public debate . . . have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West.”

Lasch had in mind those who proved decisive in finally breaking Snyder’s will.

The next time you send a package, sip a soft drink, or buy a pair of sneakers remember that.

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About Robert Paquette

Robert Paquette, a prize-winning historian, is president of The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Clinton, New York.

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

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