Race-based school mascots don't need protecting: Our View

New bill creates too high a bar for community changes.

6:22 PM, Oct. 16, 2013  |  Comments
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During halftime of Sunday Night Football's matchup between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, legendary broadcaster Bob Costas addressed the question of whether "Redskins" is an appropriate team name.

It isn't, and Costas' claim that the name is "an insult, a slur" should be obvious to everyone. That didn't stop outraged sports fans from decrying his speech, even though his comments were measured and well-justified. "Redskins" is an embarrassment.

It's also an extreme case. Here is a nuanced part of Costas' argument:

"Objections to names like 'Braves,' 'Chiefs,' 'Warriors,' and the like strike many of us as political correctness run amok," he said. "These nicknames honor, rather than demean. They are pretty much the same as 'Vikings,' 'Patriots,' or even 'Cowboys.'"

There is something to this, but there is also merit to the argument that any mascot that depicts a minority group as essentially a two-dimensional figure is problematic.

In Wisconsin, this debate has been revived by a bill passed in the Assembly this week that would essentially stop in place the ability of public schools to make changes to their Native American mascots. The bill stirs controversy unnecessarily and is a bad idea.

Locally, Barb Munson of Mosinee, a member of the Oneida Tribe and of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association's Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force, has long been a spokeswoman for the point of view that race-based mascots amount to caricatures, not "honors." That's a view shared by the great majority of tribal leaders - and it should be taken seriously in this conversation.

The new bill would require petition signatures equivalent to 10 percent of students in the district and "prove that the name promotes discrimination, student harassment or stereotyping," according to The Associated Press.

That is too high a bar to clear; a reasonable conclusion is that the real intention of the bill is to stop changes in their tracks - to effectively protect mascots that are based on race.

The bill would repeal the current law that allows changes to be initiated after a single complaint - arguably too low a bar. But recent years have seen a kind of equilibrium on the issue, as some communities have moved to make mascot changes and others have not. Mosinee, for example, retained the name "Indians" but replaced its Indian-head symbol with a large letter M in recent years.

In a sense, it is odd that this issue is as emotionally charged as it is. They are just mascots. If they marginalize a minority group or offend even a relatively small number of people, why fight so hard against changing them? Surely what matters in a school is the people and the experience - not the cartoon figures painted on the gymnasium walls.

But many people do feel an emotional connection to the mascots. In a changing world, loyalties to an alma mater and its symbols are a sort of refuge for some. We have empathy for that view, but we're not convinced they outweigh the real problems that result from the cartoonization of a group of people.

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