Four public high schools in California still cling to what is, at best, a bad life lesson for their students: Rallying school spirit around a racial epithet. While a move in Sacramento to bar all public schools in California from using the offensive “Redskins” team name and mascot might seem like overkill, it’s disappointing that it could require such a step to compel these schools to do the right thing.
This controversy has been bubbling for far too long, mostly centered on Dan Snyder, the owner of the National Football League’s Washington Redskins, and his truculent refusal to drop the racial epithet and adopt a more acceptable image for his team.
Many school districts around the nation have already gone this route on their own, or under pressure from local residents and groups. According to supporting material for AB 30, introduced by Assembly member Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), some 62 school districts nationwide still use Redskins as a team name, including California schools in Gustine, San Andreas, Chowchilla and Tulare. Conversely, the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a policy in 1997 to drop Native American tribe names from all school teams.
Supporters of the use of the name disagree that redskins is a pejorative term. But it’s the perceptions of those who are offended that matter more. Just because no offense is intended -- and I doubt these schools intend to demean anyone -- doesn’t mean there’s no offense to be taken. Substitute any other racial epithet for a team name and hear how jarringly inappropriate it sounds.
It also feels like possible overreach for a state legislature to tell local schools what they can and cannot name their teams. We have locally elected school boards for a reason -- to establish some level of local control over local schools.
But in California, at least, the local school districts are instruments of the state, from which they receive funding, standards and other directions. So in this case, the Legislature wouldn’t be overstepping its authority or violating the First Amendment in banning a racial epithet from public school team names.
The details of the law allow some transition time for the schools. If approved, the law prohibits the use of Redskins as a team name as of Jan. 1, 2017, but allows for a phase-in until 2019, which means the schools don’t have to run out immediately and buy all new uniforms.
One hopes they'd adopt new names sooner, and without the prod of a new law. It would be a good lesson for students in how to act once a wrong is recognized.