In the immediate aftermath of Monday’s Supreme Court decision that a rock group called The Slants could trademark its name despite it being a slur against Asians, the owner of the nation’s capital NFL team expressed he was elated. In doing so, he forever fended off those like me who believe his team’s nickname to be a smear, too.
“I am THRILLED,” Daniel Snyder said in a statement. “Hail to the Redskins.”
And I thought Snyder reached the zenith of arrogance and obstinance regarding his team’s nickname in 2013, when he pronounced that he’d never — “You can use caps,” he added — change the name. To me, that echoed Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s infamous siren call to white supremacists 50 years earlier, the “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” inauguration speech.
That is not to say Snyder is a white supremacist.
“But the problem with these terms,” David Embrick, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut who has written extensively on the impact of racism upon people of color, told me late Monday, “is they are rooted in white supremacy that can’t be unattached.”
What remained lost upon Snyder, and those who support his stance, is that epithets such as the Asian band’s name, his football club’s moniker, and certainly the most infamous verbal insult of all — that used for black people — were created and, more importantly, weaponized by others. For example, Smithsonian Institution senior linguist emeritus Ives Goddard found some years ago that the first written mention of the nickname from which Snyder and the NFL make millions came by translation of what the French, and then the English, thought Native Americans along the lower Wabash River uttered early in the second half of the 18th century.
But Snyder’s jubilation with Monday’s ruling was particularly problematic given the history of The Slants’ use of the slur and the reason for the legal battle it waged.
The Slants are the target of their slur; they’re Asian.
Their leader, Simon Tam, was born in San Diego to Chinese and Taiwanese parents and reared in Southern California. Two of his quartet’s other three members are Japanese-American. The fourth hails from China. They decided to call themselves by a slur for their race and ethnicity created by others.
And Tam, as he explained to the Washingtonian a year ago, is also an opponent of Snyder’s team nickname.
“I decided on the band name before I even started the group, and I chose it for more than one meaning,” Tam said. “For us, it has always been about our ‘slant’ on life as people of color. Of course, it’s also a way for us to engage in conversations about reappropriation and identity and to pay homage to decades of work by Asian American activists who used ‘slant’ in a self-empowering way.”
But Embrick explained in his study, Discursive Colorlines at Work: How Epithets and Stereotypes are Racially Unequal, that: “Because groups occupy hierarchal positions within the racial order . . . whites have power and agency to deny and apply epithets and stereotypes to themselves and other groups, while blacks and Latinas do not possess such power or privilege.”
And those slights have real consequences for real people, as the American Psychological Association pointed out of Native American mascots years ago.
What The Slants did in attempting to reappropriate a slur aimed at people like them was nothing new, except that they won the right from a panel of judges — none of whom are Asian — to call themselves what they determined. Think of that for a moment: How perverted is our society that a marginalized people need to seek legal permission from those in power to call themselves by an epithet created by those in power, and those in power considered the request in utmost seriousness?
The Supreme Court didn’t rule on that perspective. A black man, comedian Damon Wayans, never sought its opinion on the same idea after being denied his wish to name a clothing line for the well-known slur for black people.
It all reminded that ultimately what The Slants did was borrow a page from a newer generation of black people who have tried to turn the most venomous word into whatever meaning we want, whenever we want, while maintaining a status quo that even a white person believing themselves woke (Bill Maher being the latest) still can’t spit it without peril. The Slants attempted to defang a slur for their purposes like the LGBT community has those spat at it.
But Native Americans have no such role with the name of the D.C. football team that Snyder bought in 1999. The name was created by a white man, George Preston Marshall, who drenched it in racist Confederate imagery and refused for decades to do what every other team in the NFL eventually did by the 1960s: employ black players.
“Trying to keep the [nickname] is a call to a time when white people were in control of a particular group,” Embrick said. “It’s about power.”
Indeed, Native Americans are not involved with the maintenance of the name, either. Instead, they’ve waged a street fight against it for decades, and in the court system since the human rights icon Suzan Harjo, upon whom I’m trying to document on film the story of Native mascoting and slurring, filed the initial lawsuit in 1992. Save for a technicality, they haven’t lost an argument, either.
Monday was interpreted as a setback, however, and a victory for Snyder and his team’s most loyal fans — which I was most of life, having grown up in section 312 of RFK Stadium. But what fun is there in cheering a team with a name that, if you extrapolate the Supreme Court’s ruling as Snyder has, is disrespectful at best?
The Washington Post headline read: “Rejecting trademarks that ‘disparage’ others violates the First Amendment.”
The New York Daily News headline screamed: “Supreme Court unanimously rules in favor of offensive trademarks in case over rock band The Slants”
Disparaging and offensive. The Supreme Court affirmed the right to use such labels.
“Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought we hate”
The court’s decision arrived at a time when worry about the consequences of uncivil rhetoric and imagery is spiking. There are those among us enlightened enough to the sensibilities of others to act upon it. The mayor of New Orleans last month started removing statues of Confederate officers because they hearken to an ugly time. Colleges with ties to slavery have been acknowledging those and attempting to correct them.
But on Monday, a football franchise celebrated being known by a historically disparaging word for an oppressed people of color. That is its right, and it’s wrong.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.