Yesterday marked one week until the beginning of the NFL regular season. In a previous blog post, I detailed some of the icky-ness I’ve been feeling in recent years towards the game of professional football. Another thing that could have easily made that list was the franchise notoriously known as the Washington Redskins.
You don’t need to be a scholar of critical race theory to recognize the word “redskin” as a racist one. It just sounds racist. And though I’ve read varying accounts of where exactly the word “redskin” comes from, it definitely sounds like something invented by a racist white guy with little knowledge on subjects such as social constructs and the biological effects of melanin. Even if it wasn’t (although I bet it was), there is no doubt that in addition to any positive connotations the word may have acquired throughout its historical journey, the word also has roots buried deep in the soil of ignorance and race-based oppression.
As the football season continues to ramp-up, discussion surrounding the controversial name will surely ramp-up as well. But winding down with the summer is a somewhat similar name-related controversy that deserves more attention, and is also much more pertinent to the people of the Twin Cities.
The name is Lake Calhoun. For most Minnesotans, the name is synonymous with suntans and cycling, parks and paddle boarding. But for those with a historical knowledge of the man to whom the lake pays homage, the name has a very different connotation.
John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) is one of the most decorated politicians in the history of our country. During his lifetime, he served as a vice president, a senator, a secretary of war, a secretary of state, and in 1824, was even a candidate for president. He was also one of our nation’s leading crusaders for the right of a white person to own a black person.
Battling back against the rising tide of abolitionism in antebellum America, Calhoun even went as far to call slavery a “positive good,” claiming that the black race “came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations…[grew] up under the fostering care of our institutions…to its present comparatively civilized condition.”
Clearly this guy was a complete and total piece of shit. Yet, although he may be one of the worst, Calhoun is hardly the only American whose legacy continues to be heralded today despite his horrible record as a human being. Our cities, and classrooms, and streets, and currency all pay homage to the names and faces of some of the most prolific slave-owners and Indian-killers in our country’s history.
And while it might take a bit more convincing to get people to turn their backs on the likes of Washington and Jefferson, the case against Calhoun is a relatively easy one to make. He didn’t lead a revolution or write a declaration of independence. He was a crotchety old civil-war-southerner whose primary claim to fame was his advocacy for the rights of minority states to enslave minority people.
So why does the name remain? Efforts to change the name began more than a decade ago, and a recent petition started just last June has already gained thousands of signatures. What’s the hold up?
Part of the problem is bureaucracy, as local government has struggled to determine exactly who amongst them would hold the power to act on such a proposal. But if you search the topic on social media or browse the comments sections of some of the related articles, it becomes quickly apparent that many Minnesotans just don’t support the proposed name change.
Their argument is not so much a defense of Calhoun as it is a defense against what they perceive to be a never-ending onslaught of political correctness. They are sick and tired of the relentless mob that cries foul at every semi-insensitive or inappropriate utterance.
They also worry about a domino effect, a fear that by giving in to one list of demands we are launching a process that will lead to the inevitable disintegration of our collective backbone. Gone will be the days where one can make a controversial comment without being subpoenaed by the apology police. Banished will be the names of any person, place, or thing that could be misconstrued as crude when viewed in a particular cultural context.
I can empathize with that sentiment. We as a society are often too politically correct for our own good. I would even argue that a certain amount of political incorrectness is both necessary and healthy. Sometimes the truth is offensive, and when that is the case, semantical tippy toeing will not lead you to it. Some cases of political incorrectness are worthy of defending. However, I do not think this means that every crusade for righteous political correctness should stop.
Calhoun was an unequivocal bastard. He doesn’t deserve that lake. The word “Redskin” is blatantly racist. It shouldn’t be commemorated on a sports jersey.
These are fights worth fighting, and they don’t stop being fights worth fighting just because some liberal douchebag corrects your pronunciation of “Iran.” They are fights worth fighting because the cause is real. The effects of Calhoun’s racist ideology are still causing suffering to African-Americans living in the United States today. Native Americans are still subject to harmful stereotypes and still reeling from the tragic effects that those stereotypes have had on their people. And the fact that both these names still exist show that our country has not even come close to coming to terms with its racist past, and that it never will if it can’t make these types of rectifications.
Maybe “Calhoun” and “redskin” don’t offend you. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re an unoffended white person. It doesn’t matter if you’re an unoffended black person. It doesn’t matter if you’re an unoffended “red” person. What matters is that it does offend some people, most importantly significant groups of black and red people who have historical and social reasons to be hurt by those words. That’s why those names need to change, and I will always support the right of people to fight back against words that they consider hurtful.
Still, at the end of the day, these are just words. Changing the name of Lake Calhoun to Mde Maka Ska, a Dakota name meaning “White Earth Lake,” will not end the systemic oppression of black people in the United States, nor will it give the Dakota their lake back. The elimination of the racist “Redskins” trademark won’t eliminate stereotypes and discrimination against Native American people, nor will it disappear the centuries of cultural genocide to which they’ve been brutally subjected. But they are steps in the right direction, small steps, but steps that need to be taken if we ever want to get serious about taking those much bigger steps and addressing those much bigger problems for real. Thankfully, it sounds like that may be starting to happen.