The Washington Redskins is a name that is thoroughly offensive and demeaning to Native Americans. That is a true fact. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins who is no stranger to public relations nightmares, has made it a point that the name will never change. He gave me permission to use all caps, but I won't do that because with Snyder quotes the ego is implied enough that it doesn't need to be further exaggerated.
As an editor -- the guy who cleans up a lot of language around here and tries to match the right word to the underlying meaning -- it may not surprise you to know that I have an opinion on this. There is a lot of power that can be invoked in a word.
The overwhelming idea I take away from the statements of Snyder and public relations commissioner Roger Goodell is that they don't want "Redskins" to be a term that is owned by the greater community of English. They want the word to mean what they want it to mean, and they are willing to disparage anyone who gets in the way of that.
When Snyder says, "As a lifelong Redskins fan ... I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it's all about and what it means," look at the segmenting he is doing. When Goodell writes to Congress that "[f]or the team's millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America's most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride, and respect," note that those millions are but a tiny sliver of America.
I will admit that I don't know much about the other side of racism. I am a privileged white male who has generally lived in suburban neighborhoods. I generally subscribe to the South Park mantra of "I get it ... I don't get it" -- I can feel for the plight of my fellow human's struggles against racism, but I cannot ever fully know what it is like to have a racial epithet hurled at me. Let alone have a professional sports franchise named after one for my culture.
What I do know a lot about are words. As someone who grew up in the late-90's slacker culture, I have watched my vocabulary evolve over the years. I have watched "retarded" go from a multi-use adjective for stupid to a word that is considered offensive in polite company. I have watched "midget" go from endearing term for females to a word that is considered insulting to a small person. And, yes, I have watched "gay" morph from meaning "wrong" or "bad" to a term that only describes homosexuals and shouldn't have a stigma attached to it.
I'm not saying that change happens overnight with these words. Nor am I saying that I've never slipped up in using one in private company -- "retarded" is a real vice for me to this day. What I am saying is that we live with an ever-evolving language. That is a good thing. Our language should be changing to fit the needs of today. I grew up thinking that "Redskins" was just another synonym for Indians, no different than "Seminoles" or "Braves." But that doesn't mean it is so, and it certainly doesn't mean that I need to hang on to it if it is offending the common culture that we live in. An important part about sharing a language is that we, collectively, are involved in how it is enforced. We, the greater population of the country, should mean more than a single fanbase and an entity that would rather keep a racist name than go through the trouble of making a fresh start with the grace of the people's will.
Snyder isn't going to win a possible court case over this. He's not going to win in the court of public opinion. (And he knows this, which is why he's hired Frank Luntz.) The Redskins are eventually going to change names, and it's going to sound weird for a few seasons, and then we'll be over it. Nobody talks about the good old days of the Washington Bullets anymore, nor do they make fun of the Wizards for anything other than the embarrassing play of the team.
Snyder, defiant to the end, was invited by a Navajo named Amanda Blackhorse to call her a Redskin to her face. "I think the best way is to just not comment on that type of stuff," Snyder said. "I don't know her."
That's because he doesn't want to.