Is it against the law to cheer for the Florida State Seminoles basketball team? The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights thinks it very well might be. It says so in a statement today that can only be considered a case of March madness.
”The use of Native American images and team names may violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the Department of Education’s implementing instructions, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,” says the proposed statement, which may come up for a vote a month from now. “In addition, culturally insensitive displays may also violate Title II of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits that all people are entitled to ‘full and equal enjoyment’ in places of public accommodation.”
It’s far from clear that naming a sports team after a tribe is discriminatory or culturally insensitive. Many American Indians no doubt feel a sense of pride that both amateur and professional sports teams adopt names like the Blackhawks, the Chiefs, and so on. The Atlanta Braves’ nickname is not merely descriptive; it’s a practically a compliment.
For the commission, these names are simply “disrespectful and offensive.” They promote “a racially hostile environment,” they perpetuate “harmful stereotypes,” they “encourage biases and prejudices,” they’re “dehumanizing,” and “they are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.”
But forced assimilation is what the commission wants. A few years ago, Eastern Michigan University changed its team name from the “Hurons” — a distinctive moniker in college sports — to the bland and uninspired “Eagles.” What’s next for the University of Illinois? After it abandons the “Illini” as its team name, should it also rename the entire school? Illinois, like roughly half of the states and so many other place names, derives from this continent’s aboriginal population. And why won’t anybody speak on behalf of Irish Americans, who are horribly victimized by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish?
In a sense, the commission’s turning its attention to this subject can be seen as good news. If it has time to pursue matters of such enormous insignificance, then the state of civil rights in America must be excellent.