A civil rights group is urging Coachella Valley High School to eliminate its official mascot, the "Arab," saying the school is reinforcing ethnic stereotypes.
In a letter sent Nov. 1 to the Coachella Valley Unified School District superintendent, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee writes that the caricature of the Arab perpetuates demeaning stereotypes of Arabs and Arab Americans.
The Arab is a man with a large nose and heavy beard wearing a kaffiyeh, a traditional Arab head covering, the letter says. At sporting events, a student dressed as the mascot makes an appearance with a woman dressed as a belly dancer performing next to him, and the mascot's face is featured prominently at the school's athletic facilities.
The mascot dates back to the 1920s when the school began competing in athletics, and was adopted to recognize the importance of the date industry in the area. It also "fit in perfectly with the neighboring towns of Mecca, Oasis, Arabia, and Thermal," according to a description from the school's alumni association.
The Arab was originally drawn riding a horse with a lance and a turban, and has evolved throughout the years, according to the association.
The civil rights group said it understands the context in which the mascot was chosen, but those reasons are not justifiable in the 21st century. The Washington Redskins, for example, were named during a time when there was no racial tolerance, said Abed Ayoub, director of legal and policy affairs for the committee.
"We've moved forward in this country, we no longer live in those times and there needs to be an understanding of those minority groups," he said. "Respecting the heritage and paying homage to the heritage could be done in a way that is not offensive."
The organization ran the image of the Arab by other supporters to get a sense of how the community reacted when it first heard about the mascot, and the overwhelming opinion was that it was offensive, he said. The committee has also posted an online petition on its website calling for the school to reconsider the name, mascot and logo.
Darryl Adams, superintendent for Coachella Valley Unified School District, said it was the first time he has heard criticism of the mascot in his 25-year career.
"I'm not sure the issue is the name as much as it might be the depiction of the mascot," he said.
The district has had preliminary conversations with the anti-discrimination committee, he said, and will meet with the group's attorney after the issue is discussed at its Nov. 21 school board meeting.