Is “Redskins” Offensive or Not? The George Allen Test

Is “Redskins” Offensive or Not? The George Allen Test

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George Allen was regarded as a future presidential contender until a racial slur and subsequent YouTube clip derailed his political career. But would his fate been any different if he uttered the word “redskin” at an American Indian operative?  

The long-standing debate over the name of Washington’s football team is back in the news after the team’s recent success, Thursday’s symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian in which panelists called for change, and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, said he thought the team should change its name.

“It is very, very, very offensive. This isn’t like warriors or chiefs,” Cole told Roll Call, “It’s not a term of respect, and it’s needlessly offensive to a large part of our population. They just don’t happen to live around Washington, D.C.”

At the crux of the debate is whether the term “redskin” is offensive or now more synonymous with the football team than anything else. But when the term is used in another context, it would likely be viewed in a very different light.

Back in 2006, then-Sen. Allen referred to a young, Asian-American tracker as “macaca” as the incident was captured on video. That November, the Republican lost to Democrat Jim Webb by less than half of a percentage point in race that wasn’t decided until after Election Day. The year before, Allen was featured on the cover of National Review, tossing a football, as a future presidential contender.

So what would have been the fallout if the Democratic tracker was an American Indian and Allen looked into his camera, pointed his finger, and said, “This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Redskin, or whatever his name is?”

The easy answer would be that it would have been at least as bad for Allen as the actual incident. It’s fair to say that “macaca” is a more obscure and less obvious slur than “redskin” and would have likely had a similar viral effect.

On the other hand, Allen was running in Virginia, which is full of Redskins fans and Allen’s family has deep ties to the team; his father was head coach in the 1970s and brother is the current general manager (although not in 2006 when George was running for re-election).

Because of those factors, it’s possible that Allen would have survived because of the commonwealth’s tolerance for the term. But hearing the term “redskin” used in a different context, would have at least woken people up to the offensiveness of the term.

Nathan is Deputy Editor of The Rothenberg Political Report and Founder of PoliticsinStereo.com  

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  • independent in arlington

    to American Indians (Native Americans?)  I’m equally certain that almost no one uses the name in a racist way in connection with the football team.  I do think that its possible that the term when used in conjunction with the football team is now so closely associated with the team that it may have lost some of the taint of its origins.

    (As to whether the name is offensive to all Native Americans, I’m not sure how it wouldn’t be, but I remember driving through an Indian reservation in New Mexico in 1993 and passing a high school which stated on the sign in front the school “Home of the Redskins.”  Beats me how that worked).

    On the whole, however, I think changing the name is the correct decision.  I’m just not certain how you can get past the raw racism of the name’s origins (even if those weren’t uppermost when the word was first applied to the team).  I would feel differently if it were the Washington Indians or the Washington Braves or the Washington Chiefs.  I don’t see how those names are qualitatively different that the Vikings, the Fighting Irish, or the Crusaders, etc.